Federal Capital Punishment Is Back, and It’s Set to Disproportionately Penalize Black and Brown Inmates

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Protestors gather near the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, to show their opposition to the death penalty and execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who is convicted in the killing of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996, and would be the first federal execution in 17 years, in Terre Haute, Indiana, U.S. July 13, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

For the first time in almost two decades, the U.S. federal government has once again used lethal injection as a capital punishment.

The federal government carried out its first execution in nearly two decades Tuesday, executing Daniel Lewis Lee, a 47-year-old man convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build “an all-white nation” in the Pacific Northwest, the Associated Press reported.

While this execution ended the life of a murderous white supremacist — far from a sympathetic case — the reality of capital punishment is that by supporting it from a legal standpoint for cases like Lee’s, you’re in practice supporting the fact that it disproportionately penalizes Black and Hispanic inmates

According to figures released by the Department of Justice in 2000 — the last federal execution before Lee’s took place in 2003 — 16 of the 18 men on federal death row were Black, Latino, or Asian; this was a continuation of a reality in which 80 percent of death penalty cases presented to the U.S. attorney general sought this punishment for people of color. 

So, while many of us may feel like justice is being served in Lee’s case, what we really need to be considering is the true impact of capital punishment, an institution that places the heaviest burden on communities of color. 

Furthermore, despite objections from the victims’ families and after days of legal delays fueled by the capital punishment debate, the Justice Department approved the execution of Lee and two others, arguing that “the American public is decidedly supportive of the death penalty,” said Attorney General William Barr in a statement. “The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.” 

Barr’s proclamation is at odds with a recent Gallup poll that found that 60 percent of Americans favor life sentences without parole to executions. 

The death penalty, which has its origins in the early American colonies, is legal and used by 28 states, the federal government and the military. However, the United States is the only “developed” Western nation that applies the death penalty with any regularity. It is one of just 55 countries in the world that apply it, and was the first to develop lethal injection as a method of execution, which has since been adopted by five other countries, Guatemala, China, Thailand and the Philippines.