By Austin Sarat
The Trump administration on Friday dramatically expanded the federal government’s ability to carry out the death penalty and use archaic methods of execution that would prove to be a national embarrassment if used in Trump’s waning days as president.
At a time when every other constitutional democracy and many religious faiths have condemned capital punishment because of its cruel assault on human dignity, Trump and his cronies have again thumbed their noses at the world and at common decency.
The new rule is worded with deceptive simplicity: “Federal executions are to be carried out by lethal injection or by any other manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence was imposed.” Behind this bureaucratic prose hides a stark fact: In our supposedly civilized nation, the federal government now will be able to hang, electrocute, gas, or shoot individuals if it does not want to kill them by lethal injection
While lethal injection is by no means an execution panacea, Trump and his minions have embraced outdated ways of carrying out death sentences. They have revived them almost entirely for their symbolic value rather than their need to use them in the unlikely event something goes awry with the lethal injection protocol. But, practically speaking, nothing now stands in the way of the federal government’s plan to put people to death by a single dose of pentobarbital.
The Trump administration is cruelly taking advantage of the fact that this country’s 22 remaining death penalty states, because they have had real difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, have kept older methods on the books as a last resort.
Today, nine Southern and border states prescribe death by electrocution as an alternative method of execution. Six states authorize execution by gas, and the firing squad is the alternative in three more. Remarkably, three states — Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington — still allow for death by hanging if lethal injection is unavailable or impractical.