It should come as little surprise, then, that as part of his last-minute scramble to get as much done a possible before his administration turns back into a pumpkin on Jan. 20, Trump is reportedly pushing to loosen federal rules around how the government executes condemned prisoners — opening the door for the return of long since abandoned methods, like, say, firing squads.
According to a new report from ProPublica, published Wednesday, the Trump administration's race to rewrite a gaggle of federal regulations includes a rushed proposal to modify the Federal Death Penalty Act that would "amend the regulations to provide, in 28 CFR 26.3(a)(4), that 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 or which has been designated by a court in accordance with 18 U.S.C. 3596(a).'"
This means, in essence, that federal executions — currently limited solely to lethal injection — could be expanded to include methods allowed in a particular state, including electrocution or the aforementioned firing squads.
The proposed rule change, which ProPublica reports cleared White House review earlier this month, explains:
In recent U.S. Supreme Court litigation involving Eighth Amendment challenges to execution by lethal injection, nitrogen hypoxia and firing squad have been identified as potential alternative methods of execution, including by prisoners themselves, that might — or even must — be used instead of lethal injection, in particular because those methods allegedly carry a lesser risk of pain.
It goes on to note that, while the court has largely rejected the above referenced litigation, it has not ruled execution by firing squad unconstitutional in and of itself. It also claims that "litigants have argued, and some jurists have noted, that there is evidence that certain alternative means of execution may be humane methods of execution if they were made available."
Hilariously flimsy precedent of "some jurists" noting that entirely theoretical possibility aside, the proposed change also claims that at some point in the future, a state may change its sole method of execution from lethal injection to something else, and so, accordingly, the federal equivalent needs to be modified to allow for such a change.
Importantly, while the proposed rule change was first submitted for public review in early August, its clearance of the final stage in the regulatory process comes as the Trump administration's Justice Department is pushing ahead with a series of federal executions in an apparent rush to kill as many people as possible before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Biden, meanwhile, has been unequivocal in his opposition to federal executions no matter the method. "[He] opposes the death penalty now and in the future," Biden press secretary T.J. Ducklo stressed recently, as news of the Trump administration's ramped-up execution schedule was made public.
Given Biden's opposition to allowing the government to kill prisoners, it's unclear whether Trump's proposed regulatory expansion of execution rules will actually make a difference once the new administration takes office. What's clear, however, is that once again, the Trump White House is, even in its waning days, pushing for more violence as a solution in search of a problem.