Commentary: Federal execution ‘spree’ a callous exercise of power

The spree of federal executions is breaking me. I have worked as a mitigation specialist in death penalty cases for 16 years. My role is to learn as much as I can about my client and to provide that information to courts or juries so that they have a complete picture of the person whose fate they are deciding.

When a life is taken, the entire life is taken. All the good, all the bad. Gone is a father, a son, a brother, a friend. Gone is the promise of change, of redemption, of the growth that can come with time. Lost is the chance for understanding, for answers. Proponents of capital punishment speak of the importance of finality, but finality should not be mistaken for the end of suffering. All the execution does is kill the inmate. Nothing else stops. The pain, the loss and the confusion remain. Added is the number of people who now experience the unique suffering of losing a loved one to execution.

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I know this suffering well. My client, Wes Purkey, was killed by lethal injection on the morning of July 16. I was alone on the phone with Wes when the Supreme Court cleared the way for his execution. I planned to be with Wes in person, but I had just given birth and could not risk contracting the coronavirus. Instead, I stayed on the phone with him throughout the day and night. At 2:40 a.m., an email from the Supreme Court flashed across my screen. I told Wes I needed to connect with his attorneys. Before hanging up, I checked with the officers that I would be able to call back to give Wes an update. They assured me I would be able to speak with him.

When I called back the line was busy. I called repeatedly for the next 20 minutes. Each time I was greeted by the sound of a busy signal. Not only was the chance for Wes to receive information from his legal team denied, but I am left with the pain of reliving those last moments with Wes on the phone and imagining him being moved from the cell to the death house not knowing what was happening. I am left with the pain of not being able to say goodbye.

As a person who cared for her client, I am also left with the responsibility for putting his family and his many friends back together. Scores of people loved Wes, and while that might be tough for some to understand given the crimes to which he confessed and was found guilty of, it is actually very simple: Every human being is loved no matter the devastation they might have caused because no person is all bad.

Much has been written about the unprecedented nature of the federal executions being shepherded through in the waning days of the Trump administration. The sheer callousness and cruelty of carrying out these executions during a pandemic in which over 300,000 people in the United States have died and now during the lame duck period of a presidency is unmatched. History will rightly tell the story of the men who cared not about law or justice, but of the exercise of power and how they clutched to it until the bitter end. And they will be judged harshly.

When Brandon Bernard was killed by lethal injection on Dec. 10, I wept for the senselessness of his passing, but most of all for those he left behind who would carry the anger and pain of his death by a government that was forged to protect citizens, not to perpetuate harm. Brandon’s attorney statement was full of the love that we feel for our clients and like so many of my clients, Brandon’s last words were also full of remorse and love. And it is that spark of enduring human emotion that is carried forward in the lives of us who are left behind.

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Three more executions are scheduled before President-elect Biden is sworn in. On Jan. 12, Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, who is severely mentally ill and traumatized; on Jan. 14, Corey Johnson, a person who is intellectually disabled; and on Jan. 15, Dustin Higgs, a Maryland resident who did not kill anyone. I hope for mercy for each and for the strength their loved ones, including their legal teams, will need to make meaning of their deaths should these executions go forward.

(Elizabeth Vartkessian is the executive director of Advancing Real Change, Inc., a Baltimore based nonprofit. She was a member of Wesley Purkey’s defense team, the second man executed under the Trump administration. Email: esv@advancechange.org.)