On Tuesday morning, July 14, at 8:07 a.m. (EST), as most Americans were waking up to start their day, Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection. After a 17-year Justice Department precedent of not committing executions, President Trump’s DOJ carried out the first federal execution since the turn of the millennium. Lee, a former white supremacist, had been convicted in 1996 for the torture and murder of a family of three. Attorney General William Barr declared that Lee, “finally faced the justice he deserved.”
Lee lay, strapped to a gurney in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the last four hours of his life. From 4 a.m. until 8 a.m., he waited on what would become his deathbed until the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling (on party lines) came back early in the morning, allowing the execution. With his dying breaths, Lee continued to profess his innocence, “I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.” Lee’s execution opens up the door for the government to begin processing many more. With a backlog after a 17-year moratorium on federal executions, the Trump administration has already hurried to schedule two more this week.
In an act of monumental grace, the fiercest opponents of Lee’s execution were the family members of his victims. Earle Peterson, whose daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter were the victims of Lee’s crimes, pleaded last month, “As a supporter of President Trump, I pray that he will hear my message: the scheduled execution of Danny Lee for the murder of my daughter and granddaughter is not what I want and would bring my family more pain.” Other relatives sued the government last week to delay the execution. They had wanted to be there as a protest of and a rebuke against government execution but they feared the crowded execution room (with maskless officers) would make them susceptible to COVID-19. They sued to prevent the government from carrying out executions in the midst of a pandemic: “For us it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this.’”
The pro-death penalty camp will reply that Daniel Lewis Lee was no saint. He did evil and he deserved evil. But the measure of a great nation lies in how it treats those who are not saints. As Jesus taught:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47, ESV)
Scripture gives guidance only for moral ends, not their means, but I think we can safely extrapolate the appropriate policy from Christ’s teachings. The Catholic Church, for one, has decreed the death penalty “inadmissible.” Daniel Lewis Lee, incarcerated, posed no threat to civil society. He was a 47-year old man, who had spent the majority of his life languishing in a prison cell. His death saved no one.
Deterrence advocates will claim that imposing harsh, retributive punishments on crime will prevent further crime. It was in the name of deterrence that President Trump began to separate children from their parents at the border and herd them into cages. It was in the name of deterrence that American law enforcement arrested and prosecuted No More Deaths volunteers with felony charges for giving water to migrants in the scorching desert. The thought goes, if the United States makes illegal immigration as draconian, daunting, and deadly as possible, refugees will give up. But unless the United States mandates that law enforcement officials kidnap, rape, and murder refugees, then those who are fleeing kidnapping, rape, and murder in their home countries will continue to seek shelter in America. If President Trump is not willing to stoop to the criminality of cartels and gangs, then penning children into cages and hoping that migrants die in the desert is not only cruel, unusual, and grossly sinful, but also ultimately ineffective.
Daniel Lewis Lee’s death was unnecessary. Daniel Lewis Lee’s death was avoidable. Daniel Lewis Lee’s death was wrong. The execution of a man who committed his crime 24 years ago will be far less effective as an exercise of deterrence than it is as a campaign ploy to win more votes for Donald Trump.
On June 1, in response to the protests over the police murder of George Floyd, President Trump stood in the Rose Garden and declared, “My fellow Americans… I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation and that is exactly what I will do… The biggest victims of the rioting are peace loving citizens in our poorest communities and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe. I will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order.”
Yet again, the impeached President imitated his illustrious predecessor, ‘law and order’ conservatism’s previous champion, the pardoned criminal Richard Nixon. Law and order conservatism has become a key part of the President’s reelection pitch, in which he promises to wrong the ills of society by cracking down on those at the bottom. It is an applause line––anarchists aside, members of civil society generally are grateful to live in one––but it means very little. The very job of the Executive is to enforce the law; no employee would ever walk into a performance review and demand a raise for doing the contractually-obligated minimum.
Moral accountability and personal responsibility are much-needed virtues, toward which we all should strive. But law and order politics too often cordone off a swath of society as ‘undesirable’ without litigating the root causes of repeated unrest. More particularly, law and order politics emphasize certain crimes––those committed by the poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged––and look away from others. As Yale alum and CNN host Van Jones reflected, if the warriors against drugs were really serious, they would start knocking down Ivy League freshmen suites, where low-level crimes proceed unabated every night. Instead, “tough-on-crime” laws in the 1980s drove up the incarcerated population in America from 500,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.5 million in the mid-2000s. Law and order politics hollowed out socioeconomically marginalized communities, stripped already struggling families of fathers and primary caretakers, and filled our prisons with mostly nonviolent offenders. Instead of abiding by the Christian aphorism of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” law and order politics target low-level criminals without leveling a commensurate effort against the roots of crime.
Moreover, and much more damningly, law and order rhetoric always punches down on the poor and never stands up to the rich. On Friday, July 10, Donald Trump, the “president of law and order,” commuted the prison sentence of his campaign advisor, Roger Stone. It was just the latest in a series of pardons Trump has given out to the rich, privileged, and well-connected.
Of the 25 pardons Trump had granted up until March 19, 2020 (the date when the Justice Department last updated its records), he pardoned three men in February, 2020, for massive tax fraud, one of whom had been ordered to pay a $200 million fine. For his first presidential pardon, Trump rescued Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County who had been in contempt of court for continuing to racially profile Hispanic Americans even after he had been ordered to stop. Arpaio, who endorsed Trump early in the primary and campaigned for him, had bragged that he was running “concentration camps” for Hispanic Americans, most of whom had never faced trial. Boasting about the horrific conditions in which he placed his prisoners, Arpaio had gloated, “It costs more to feed the dogs.”
In April, 2018, Donald Trump pardoned Scooter Libby, chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been convicted for perjury and lying to the FBI during the investigation into how Bush officials illegally leaked the identity of a CIA agent. The move was widely seen as a gesture to Trump associates that if they lied to the FBI for him during the Mueller investigation, Trump would pardon them later. In May, 2018, Donald Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, who had been convicted of campaign finance violations. D’Souza had previously endorsed Trump, defended the white supremacist march at Charlottesville, and mocked the Parkland shooting survivors after the Florida legislature refused to ban assault weapons: “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.” Donald Trump’s agenda has always been to punish the poor and protect his privileged cronies. By contrast, President Lincoln used his pardon powers to help the marginalized and the disadvantaged, including pardoning hundreds of Native Americans who had fought against settlers, deserters from the Union army, and ex-Confederate soldiers.
The Roger Stone commutation is just the latest perversion of justice by the “law and order” president. Richard Nixon, who championed “law and order,” committed crimes far beyond the Watergate scandal which ultimately took him down. In all, the Senate investigation into Nixon had to probe “at least 13 separate areas of Presidential activity aside from Watergate” in order to prosecute his impeachment. President Reagan, who also championed “law and order” politics, became known as the “Teflon President” because his administration survived countless criminal cover-ups, such as Iran-Contra. SNL even mocked his ability to distance himself from his administration’s many scandals.
Of course, abiding by just laws and protecting a just order are the goals of any government. That is fundamental. But the rhetoric of “law and order” is often a ploy to win votes by punishing the poor––especially communities of color––while letting the powerful get away with far more serious crimes.