Trump’s record number of executions last year led to rise in COVID-19 cases on death row

federal prison executions
A no trespassing sign is displayed outside the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The string of executions that former President Donald Trump’s administration conducted at the end of his term were mostly likely COVID-19 superspreader events, a new Associated Press analysis found. 

Last July, after a 17-year hiatus, the Bureau of Prisons began executing thirteen inmates on death row including five during Trump’s lame-duck period at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. 

The AP found that by end of the executions, 70% of those on death row were sick with the virus. 

Colorado-based attorney Madeline Cohen told the AP that between Dec. 16 and Dec. 20 of last year, 33 of the 47 people on death row tested positive for the coronavirus. The positive cases came just days after the execution of Brandon Bernard on December 10 and Alfred Bourgeois on December 11. 

In the weeks after both executions, at least a dozen other people tested positive for the virus. 

Cohen compiled the data by speaking to federal death row lawyers.

The AP added that prison staff were able to refuse testing and opt-out of contact tracing but were still able to work, so it is impossible to know the extent of the spread. Two sources who spoke to the AP anonymously also said that prison staff told coworkers that they should travel home and then take a coronavirus test so they wouldn’t be stuck quarantining in Terre Haute if their results came back positive. 

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Lawyers for Dustin John Higgs, the last to be executed, revealed during a court hearing that he had been infected with the virus shortly before his execution.

Ashley Kincaid Eve, a lawyer and anti-death penalty activist, told the AP that inmates informed her that Higgs, alongside death row inmate Corey Johnson, who also tested positive, were moved around the prison to access phones and email so they could speak with their lawyers, despite their diagnosis. 

On November 19, Orlando Cordia Hall was put to death and the facility only had three coronavirus cases, but by December 29, the facility had 406 cases. Several days after Hall’s execution, eight members of the execution team tested positive for the COVID-19, with five being brought back for other executions.

The Justice Department said that only five members of the team chose to get tested after his execution and that they were all negative, the AP reported.

The HuffPost reported that Hall’s spiritual adviser, Yusuf Ahmed Nur, also tested positive for the virus days later. He was in a room besides two unmasked executioners. 

Altogether, 726 of the almost 1,200 inmates at the prison have tested positive for coronavirus, with 692 recovering, according to Bureau of Prisons data. The facility currently has 34 active positive cases. 

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Last month, the AP reported that two reporters who witnessed executions in January also tested positive for the virus, but The Bureau of Prisons withheld that information from other media personnel who witnessed executions. 

BoP did not reply to Insider’s email request for comment at the time of publication. They told the AP that they took “extensive” measures to quell the spread and conducted contact training in accordance with federal guidelines. 

Additionally, the AP reported that witnesses in many cases were transported to death chambers in vans where there was no room for social distancing, or were placed in rooms where it was hard to stay six feet apart or with little ventilation. 

President Joe Biden has said he’s against the federal death penalty and has pledged to abolish it and incentivize states to abolish theirs. 

Last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not have any updates on an immediate plan from the Biden administration to end the practice. 

“The President, as you know, has stated his opposition to the death penalty in the past,” Psaki said. “He remains – that remains his view. I don’t have anything more for you in terms of future actions or mechanisms, though.”


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A federal judge delayed the execution of the only woman on death row, said the DOJ rescheduling it was unlawful

federal prison executions
A no trespassing sign is displayed outside the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

  • A federal judge said the Justice Department delayed the execution of Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on death row, Politico reported.
  • US District Court Judge Randolph Moss said the DOJ acted unlawfully when it rescheduled the execution of Montgomery. 
  • Montgomery was initially set to be executed on December 8, but her execution was rescheduled to January 12 after her lawyers caught COVID-19.
  • Moss vacated the January 12 date and said the DOJ couldn’t set a new date at this time. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A federal judge said the Justice Department acted unlawfully when it rescheduled the execution of the only woman on death row, Politico reported.

Lisa Montgomery’s executed was initially scheduled to be executed this month, but the Bureau of Prisons rescheduled the date to January 12 after her attorneys got sick with COVID-19 and asked for a delay so they could file a clemency petition, the Associated Press reported. 

US District Court Judge Randolph Moss said the Justice Department couldn’t execute Montgomery, 52, before the end of the year and then said they couldn’t order her execution while there was stay-in-place order amid the pandemic. 

“The Court, accordingly, concludes that the Director’s order setting a new execution date while the Court’s stay was in effect was ‘not in accordance with law,'” Moss wrote.

Moss vacated the January 12 date, which means President Donald Trump’s administration may have to reschedule Montgomery’s execution until after President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

Montgomery was convicted in 2004 of strangling a woman who was eight months pregnant to death, cutting the baby out of her, and kidnapping it, CNN reported.

Biden has been a staunch opponent to the death penalty. He has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to work to incentivize states to abolish theirs. The Trump administration has been criticized for scheduling executions during Trump’s lame-duck period. 

Earlier this month, Brandon Bernard became the ninth execution carried out by the Federal Bureau of Prisons this year after a 17-year hiatus. Bernard also represented the first time an execution has been carried out during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years. 

So far, the federal government under the Trump administration has executed 10 people in 2020, the most in a single year since 1896. 

There are more executions still scheduled until Biden takes office, including Dustin John Higgs, whose execution is scheduled for January 15, just five days before Biden is sworn in. Higgs would be the last of five scheduled executions that were set in Trump’s lame-duck period.

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