Business leaders have been stepping up to support Black Lives Matter and other justice reform efforts in the U.S., but until recently the death penalty escaped much notice. Somewhat ironically, former President Donald Trump can take credit for pushing the issue back into view. Inadvertently or not, he has provided corporate citizens with a powerful new opportunity to embrace abolition of the death penalty as part of their pursuit of equal justice and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The death penalty is a persistent manifestation of white-on-Black violence
The record is clear on the history of state-sanctioned, lethal white-on-Black violence in the U.S. — from slave law, to the “lynch laws” called out by Ida B. Wells during the late 19th century, to how the death penalty is applied in the country today.
To further underscore the strength of those roots, the U.S. has become increasingly isolated in its continued insistence on the broad use of the death penalty. By 2018, Amnesty International listed 106 nations that had abolished the death penalty entirely. Eight others abolished it for all ordinary civilian crimes, and another 28 still had it on the books but had not applied it for 10 years or more.
More recently, the United Nations took stock of the situation and noted that “some 170 Members States of the United Nations with a variety of legal systems, traditions, cultures and religious backgrounds, have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.”
Former President Trump turns the spotlight on capital punishment
Until Trump took office, the U.S. federal government fell into the category of a non-practitioner.
Following a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, some U.S. states abolished the death penalty while others retained it on a revised basis. The revisions did not erase racial sentencing disparity. However, they did help tamp down opposition by providing state-based death penalty supporters with legal cover. On its part, the federal government all but eliminated the death penalty after 1972. According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, no federal executions occurred from the 1970s through the 1990s. Two occurred in 2001 and one took place in 2003.
Not one federal execution took place during the 17-year period following 2003. That changed dramatically midway through the presidential election year of 2020.
For context, the Federal Bureau of Prisons lists 50 federal executions that have taken place in the 94 years since 1927. The Trump administration alone accounts for 13 of those executions, all taking place in just six months between July 14, 2020, and January 15, 2021.
Political observers assumed that the late-term push was intended to gin up support among Trump’s base, and the intent comes into sharper focus with the January 6 insurrection in hindsight.
Trump began the 2020 election cycle steady in the polls, but his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic began to eat away at his prospects for winning the November election. By the summer of 2020, his campaign and its allies in media began to coalesce around an aggressive, persistent strategy of pushing race-based lies about election fraud and raising the specter of a criminal takeover of U.S. elections before and after Election Day.
On July 15, 2020, the Trump administration also began executing federal prisoners at an unseemly pace. In retrospect, that effort now seems specifically aimed at exciting the Trump base in support of extreme action as a response to criminality. The twin strategy almost succeeded when an organized, violent mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol Building on January 6 with lethal intent, including pushing for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence.
The United Nations is paying attention
As result of the post-1972 patchwork of state policies, and the virtual abolition of the death penalty in federal policy prior to the Trump administration, advocates for reform have found it difficult — if not impossible — to stimulate momentum for change on a national level.
However, Trump may have inadvertently lit the spark for reform. By apparently deploying the federal death penalty for political gain, he threw a harsh spotlight on the persistence of race-based sentencing disparity in the U.S., especially regarding the race of the victim. Trump further underscored the disparity by ramping up his practice of doling out pardons to white offenders, including four U.S. mercenaries convicted of multiple murders in Iraq.
Apparently, the world has been watching. The United Nations responded to the rash of federal executions last week when it reported on the findings of human rights experts who reviewed Trump’s actions during his last six months in office. Without mentioning Trump by name, the U.N. report excoriated the Trump administration, along with U.S. states and other nations that still carry out executions.
The death penalty as a threat to democracy
U.N. experts cited four moral and ethical reasons for abolishing the death penalty in the U.S. and elsewhere: It does not deter crime, it is inconsistent with right-to-life principles, it is inhumane, and it disproportionately has an impact on people of color and those living in poverty.
To that list, Trump himself has added a fifth reason, one that speaks to the preservation of American democracy: Politicians often deploy the death penalty as a blunt political weapon to curry favor among voters. With the insurrection on January 6, Trump weaponized this form of punishment and demonstrated that using the death penalty against those accused of crimes can help to instigate a vigilante mob.
That new perspective provides U.S. business leaders with a new opportunity to redefine the terms of the death penalty debate. Rather than relying on emotion-fraught appeals to morality and ethics, business leaders can call for a redefinition of terms. They can advocate for treating the death penalty as a threat to democratic institutions. Policymakers may fiddle around the edges of capital punishment, but the rot of enslavement, white supremacy and vigilantism will continue to endanger American democracy until it is cut out, at the root.
By focusing on the lessons of events leading up to the January 6 insurrection, business leaders can place the death penalty firmly within the context of the need for wider criminal justice reform.
To help business leaders organize, Virgin Group’s founder Sir Richard Branson today launched a new campaign that provides a platform for CEOs and other leaders to leverage their personal profiles to lobby in support of death penalty abolition in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In launching the campaign, Branson highlighted Trump’s execution spree alongside similar spikes in Egypt and other countries. “The death penalty is broken beyond repairand plainly fails to deliver justice by every reasonable measure,” Branson said. “It is marred by cruelty, waste, ineffectiveness, discrimination and an unacceptable risk of error.”
Brands take a stand against the death penalty
Branson is leading the effort through the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ). The organization has already established a track record of successful lobbying for criminal justice reform in several U.S. states and elsewhere. It has also developed a criminal justice reform toolkit that provides guidance on meaningful steps that individual business leaders can take within their own companies.
RBIJ urged the U.S. business community to follow Branson’s lead. “This is a critical opportunity for business leaders to embrace their responsibility to speak out authentically on issues of racial and social justice — in a way that delivers real impact,” Celia Ouellette, RBIJ’s CEO, said in a public statement.
Global business leaders aligned with RBIJ on this front represent a myriad of industries, countries and cultures — from Guilherme Leal, chairman of Brazil’s Natura, to Jared Smith, the Utahn co-founder of powerhouse Qualtrics, to Strive Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean founder and executive chairman of the South Africa-based telecommunications and technology firm Econet Group.
Business leaders taking on this cause here in the U.S. will find a likely ally in President Joe Biden. Though Biden backed expansion of the federal death penalty in 1994, in the following years he advocated for reform. He came into office in part on a racial justice platform, and he has already announced his intention to order the Justice Department to stop scheduling executions. Advocates are also pressing him to commute the sentences of federal prisoners currently on death row, and U.N. experts have called on him to take action.
Permanent reform in the U.S. will be impossible without additional support. A total of 28 states still have the death penalty written into their laws, and an act of Congress would be required to abolish the death penalty nationwide.
By organizing and advocating for the abolition of capital punishment, business leaders can demonstrate that the U.S. is making definitive break from its past and stepping up to lead the world in a more diverse and inclusive future.