A federal judge has temporarily halted the first federal execution in 16 years, which would have ended the life of convicted killer and white supremacist Danny L. “Cyclops” Lee, who also set off a bomb outside Spokane City Hall in 1996.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutka ruled the public is not served by “short-circuiting” legitimate judicial process.
“It is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,” she wrote, referring to an appeal of his conviction that is pending before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Missouri.
The ruling follows a decision in July by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to resume executions of condemned federal inmates on Dec. 9.
The first death row inmate scheduled to be executed was Lee, who was nicknamed “Cyclops” by other white supremacists after he was blinded in his left eye during a Spokane bar fight. A judge sentenced Lee to death in 1999 for killing three Arkansas residents.
According to a federal indictment, Lee, along with Chevie Kehoe, threw the bodies of William Mueller, Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, into a bayou after shooting them with a stun gun and wrapping their heads in plastic bags sealed by duct tape. The killings were part of an effort to steal cash and weapons to overthrow the U.S. government.
Some of the guns stolen from the Mueller family re-emerged in Spokane as part of later crimes, according to court documents.
Lee, originally of Yukon, Oklahoma, was implicated in at least one other killing as well as the April 29, 1996, bombing of Spokane City Hall. An explosive device containing nails and screws was detonated at about 3 a.m., hurling shrapnel into Riverfront Park and damaging the Post Street entrance to the building. No injuries were reported.
All federal executions were put on hold in 2014 following a botched state execution in Oklahoma. At that time, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal-injection drugs.
Barr said in July the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for the execution of Lee to move forward.
Barr also approved a one-drug procedure, using pentobarbital, that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Some of the convicts chosen for execution challenged the new procedures in court, arguing the government was circumventing proper methods to wrongly execute inmates quickly.
“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” said Shawn Nolan, the convicts’ attorney. “The court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”
The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.
The death penalty law in Washington state was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in October, following a moratorium imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014. The last state inmate executed was 52-year-old Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. He was convicted of rape and murder in the 1991 torture and slaying of Holly Washa.
Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions, and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death. Prior to the judge’s ruling on Wednesday, Lee was scheduled to be put to death next month.
Federal prosecutors in Arkansas brought racketeering charges against Lee and Kehoe for the Spokane bombing, which was alleged to be part of a plot on behalf of a group called the Aryan People’s Republic. That group envisioned an overthrow of the federal government and the subsequent creation of an all-white society, according to court records.
Kehoe, also 46, was sentenced to life in prison. He’s serving that sentence at a maximum-security facility in Colorado, according to Bureau of Prisons records.
Lee has been appealing his death sentence in the 20 years since his conviction. In September 2018, attorneys filed a new motion to vacate his sentence, arguing that new DNA evidence rebutted claims made by prosecutors in his 1998 trial and that witnesses against him were not credible.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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