TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – A U.S. district judge ordered a new delay in federal executions, including the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of killing a family of three in Arkansas and was involved in the 1996 bombing of Spokane City Hall.
The Trump administration immediately appealed to a higher court Monday, asking that the executions move forward.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said there are still legal issues to resolve and that “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process.” The executions, pushed by the administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.
The new hold came a day after a federal appeals court lifted a hold on the execution of Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, which was scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
Lee was also involved in the 1996 bombing of Spokane City Hall along with Chevie Kehoe, which was a part of a white supremacist plot to start a “white revolution.” The two were in a white supremacist gang called the Aryan People’s Republic.
The Lee execution was to be carried out after a federal appeals court lifted an injunction on Sunday that had been put in place last week after some members of the victims’ family argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend. The family on Monday appealed to the Supreme Court.
The decision to move forward with the execution – and two others scheduled later in the week – during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee’s victims.
In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
But relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose that idea. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that it was being done on their behalf.
“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” relative Monica Veillette told the Associated Press.
Veillette is the niece of victim Nancy Mueller.
The relatives, several of whom live in the Spokane area, would be traveling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus’ spread is virtually impossible. An attorney for the family members who have objected to the execution said they hadn’t traveled to Indiana, as of Monday morning.
Lance Gurel, husband of Nancy Mueller’s sister Kimma Gurel, said in a statement on behalf of the family, that they still strongly opposed Lee’s execution and were planning to attend to witness the injustice of his execution.
“We are all united about the fact that this sentence of the death penalty was unfair, that highlights one of the reason that people argue against the death penalty is that it’s application is inequitable,” he said. “Even when we think the person’s an evil person, they still deserve to be treated fairly.”
Gurel said the family was planning to witness the execution, but said it could be dangerous for them to go because there are COVID-19 cases in the prison and the risk of traveling.
The federal prison system has struggled in recent months to contain the exploding number of coronavirus cases behind bars. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.
Barr said he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.
But on Sunday, the Justice Department disclosed that a staff member involved in preparing for the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus, but said he had not been in the execution chamber and had not come into contact with anyone on the specialized team sent to handle the execution.
Chutkan, the judge who ordered the delay, said the inmates have presented evidence showing that the government’s plan to use only pentobarbital to carry out the executions “poses an unconstitutionally significant risk of serious pain.”
Chutkan said the inmates produced evidence that, in other executions, prisoners who were given pentobarbital suffered “flash pulmonary edema,” which she said interferes with breathing and produces sensations of drowning and strangulation.
The inmates have identified alternatives, including the use of an opioid or anti-anxiety drug at the start of the procedure or a different method altogether, a firing squad, Chutkan said.
The Justice Department appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.
The three men scheduled to be executed this week had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.
Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 – most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
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