Conflicting accounts of the federal executions that took place in the final months of Donald Trump‘s presidency have prompted calls for an investigation into whether executioners deliberately misled the courts.
Thirteen death row inmates were put to death in seven months after the Trump administration resumed federal executions last July.
According to the Associated Press, executioners likened the deaths by lethal injection to falling asleep—in sworn accounts they called gurneys “beds” and referred to final breaths as “snores.”
The “sanitized” accounts of the executions at the U.S Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, differed drastically from the reports provided by AP and other eyewitnesses, who described how the stomachs of inmates “rolled, shook and shuddered” as the pentobarbital injections took effect, according to AP.
The executioners’ accounts were used by the federal government in legal filings as evidence that the executions were going off without a hitch.
Now there are calls for an investigation into the Bureau of Prisons, asking whether executioners censored their accounts to ensure the executions took place before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Newsweek the “neutral eyewitness reports differ markedly from the sanitized version of events from the Bureau of Prisons.
“That is consistent with the generally truth-impaired descriptions of events the Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice offered throughout the execution spree,” he added.
“The new administration should investigate the conduct of BOP officials regarding the executions, correct the record so the public is provided truthful information about what actually happened, and hold accountable federal officials who engaged in improper conduct during the executions.”
Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, said the inconsistencies did not surprise him.
“Officials from the BOP and the [Department of Justice] pulled out all of the stops to ensure these executions went forward, so of course they told the courts whatever they thought would keep things moving,” he said.
“They changed all manner of practices that normally would have stalled the process. When Daniel Lee’s execution warrant expired at midnight on July 14, they just gave him a new execution date for ‘immediately’ and never even bothered his attorneys. Lee’s attorney learned he had been executed from a tweet. So I don’t think anyone is surprised about this.”
Bonowitz added: “We believe the entire experience of the Trump execution spree needs to be known and understood, but I’m not sure that it is worth spending time on if that will get in the way of abolishing the death penalty.”
In an interview with the AP in December, William Barr, then Trump’s attorney general, defended the federal executions.
“I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty,” Barr said. “But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out.”
Another question raised is whether inmates suffered when they were put to death—a focus of litigation throughout the run of executions.
Lawyers for Keith Nelson, an inmate executed in August, had argued that an autopsy revealed Wesley Purkey had experienced “excruciating pain and suffering” during his execution in July.
Purkey suffered severe pulmonary edema, where a person’s lungs are filled with fluid and they experience a sensation akin to drowning or suffocating, the court filings said.
Dale Baich, one of Nelson’s attorneys, told Newsweek the government had “cut legal corners” in its rush to move forward with executions.
He said a court had granted Nelson a stay the day before his scheduled execution because the government did not comply with the legal requirement to obtain a prescription for the pentobarbital it intended to use.
Baich said the executioners’ sworn accounts were “another example of the government breaking the law in its effort to try to enforce the law.”
Demonstrators protest federal executions outside the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on December 10, 2020. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Megan McCracken, an attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at University of California Berkeley School of Law, said the disparity between what the eyewitnesses saw and what the Bureau of Prisons reported “reminds us that lack of transparency is endemic to all aspects of capital punishment.”
“It directly implicates concerns about the constitutionality of the federal government’s execution procedures,” said McCracken, who specializes in challenging lethal injection as a method.
She added that these inconsistencies were relevant to legal claims that the procedure violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.
“Autopsy reports from executions all over the country tell us that lethal injection procedures trigger a condition called acute pulmonary edema, in which the lungs fill with fluid,” McCracken said.
“Eyewitness accounts from some of the federal executions have described prisoners gasping for breath and their abdomens convulsing. These movements are consistent with the prisoners consciously experiencing flash pulmonary edema, which is unquestionably very painful.”
Media witnesses “serve as society’s eyes and ears,” McCracken said.
“Without their reporting, the general public would have no objective information about what happens behind the prison walls. Experience tells us that reporters tend to provide clear, comprehensible accounts of what happens at executions,” she added.
“These descriptions stand in stark contrast to the official descriptions provided by BOP employees, which describe all 13 executions as being smooth and problem-free. Needless to say, these BOP accounts contradict eyewitnesses to the same executions.”
The Bureau of Prisons and the White House have been contacted for comment.