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The Lightning Farm

Cruel and unusual: as more states abolish capital punishment, what will happen to federal prisoners sentenced to die?

Shortly before he left office, Donald Trump reactivated the federal death penalty—putting an end to a seventeen-year hiatus and executing an unprecedented thirteen people in less than a year. While the brutality of this killing spree is well-documented, the byzantine legal process through which it was authorized has received little attention. For the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, Caroline Lester traveled to the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the execution of Dustin Higgs, illuminating the brutishness of state power. As an appeals lawyer put it: “I’ve never been more afraid of the government than I was after those seven months.” The story she tells of Higgs’s attempts to negotiate with a government bent on killing its citizens implicates the entire legal system, from the Supreme Court to Obama’s attorney general. In this episode, Lester joins Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca to discuss her harrowing reporting process, the long and bipartisan history of state violence, and the inequity of the death penalty.

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May 2021

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