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Spree of federal executions during Trump's lame-duck period and pandemic unprecedented

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SectionsTVFeaturedMore from NBC Follow NBC News Brandon Bernard was 18 when he was arrested as an accomplice in the 1999 kidnapping and murder of two youth ministers on a secluded stretch of the Fort Hood military reservation in Texas.On Thursday evening, Bernard, now 40, is set to become the youngest person, based on the age when the crime occurred, in nearly seven decades to be executed by the federal government.Of the next five scheduled federal executions, four of them, including Bernard's, involve Black men; the fifth person, Lisa Montgomery, would be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.Already in 2020, the federal government has put eight people to death, including the only Native American on federal death row, whose execution in August was opposed by his tribe, the Navajo Nation.Together, these cases reflect a detachment from this year's "awakening on the racial injustice that is endemic to our criminal legal system," Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, said."The myth for years has been that the federal criminal justice system was more advanced and fairer than the state court systems and did not suffer from the same legacy of racism and bigotry," Dunham said.A Death Penalty Information Center report released in September examined the historical context of how capital punishment has been a tool for authority over Black Americans. Since executions were reintroduced in the United States in 1977, nearly 300 Black defendants have been executed for the murder of a white victim, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of a Black victim, the report said.Earlier this year, while the center notes that white men made up the majority of the defendants who were executed by the federal government, the victims in those cases were also white."These cases illustrate that on the federal level, as well, the lives of white victims still matter more than the lives of Black victims," Dunham said, "and the lives of defendants of color matter less than anyone else."The Trump administration and the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr ramped up executions in July after a 17-year hiatus on the federal level — a combination of the lack of priority under previous administrations, concerns over botched executions and the delays caused by extended appeals.Barr in July said the those slated for death were among "the worst criminals." The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.No state has carried out executions since July, when Texas did so.Critics argue that employing death sentences during a pandemic is unsafe, particularly when it requires inmates, their families and legal representatives, and teams of federal execution specialists to travel to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where executions are held.Following one federal execution in November, eight members of a 40-person federal execution team later tested positive for Covid-19 after returning home, according to a court declaration of a Federal Bureau of Prisons official filed this week in response to a lawsuit by two Terra Haute prisoners seeking to halt the executions.The exact circumstances for how the team members became infected was not detailed, but five of those staffers are expected to take part in separate executions scheduled this week, including of Bernard.

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