One of the men responsible for the murder of an Arkansas family and the bombing of Spokane City Hall in 1996 was executed Monday, over the objections of the victims’ relatives.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was convicted for the 1996 killing of William Mueller, his wife Nancy and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell in Arkansas. The same year, he and Chevie Kehoe, who was sentenced to life in prison, set off a pipe bomb in front of Spokane City Hall. The two were part of a group plotting a white-supremacist revolution.
The decision to move forward with the first execution by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 – and two others scheduled later in the week – drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States, is ravaging prisons nationwide.
The execution of Lee, who died at 5:07 a.m., went off after a series of legal battles that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early Tuesday and allowed it to move forward with a 5-4 ruling.
Monica Veillette, the niece of Nancy Mueller and a resident of Spokane County, said the family had planned to attend the execution and speak out against it, but said going to a prison that had a COVID-19 death and positive cases of coronavirus would not have been safe for her 84-year old grandmother, who has congestive heart failure.
“This was planned for a time (we) could not safely attend,” she said. “It took away our rights and silenced us. This was not about the families of the victim, there was zero regard for our health and safety.”
Attorney General William Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to provide closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
But Veillette, her mother, who is Nancy Mueller’s sister, and her grandmother have consistently opposed that idea and argued Lee deserved life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf.
“You have to live with the burden that someone was killed in you and your loved one’s name,” she said. “The last part of my aunt’s story is someone being killed in her name, like we’re angry vengeful people, instead of the loving person she was.”
They also noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.
Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organization, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic.
Two years later, they were arrested for the killings in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles northwest of Little Rock.
At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.
Some of the guns that had belonged to the Muellers were found by law enforcement in Spokane when federal agents searched a garage the men were using at the former Shadows Motel and RV Park on Division Street, according to The Spokesman-Review’s archives.
The same year the Muellers were killed, Kehoe and Lee set off a pipe bomb in front of Spokane City Hall. The bomb was one of three set off in the Spokane area in a one-month period, all three of which were linked to white supremacy but two different groups.
Kehoe’s and Lee’s bomb went off at about 3 a.m. on April 29, 1996, and hurled shrapnel about 150 yards away into Riverfront Park. No one was injured.
A U.S. District Court judge put a hold on Lee’s execution Monday, over concerns from death row inmates about how executions were to be carried out.
While an appeals court upheld the hold, the high court overturned it. That delay came after an appeals court on Sunday overturned a hold put in place last week after the victims’ relatives argued they’d be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution.
Lee’s execution was then set to happen at 1 a.m., but his lawyers raised a last-minute legal question. The Justice Department said it filed a request with the court to straighten it out but went through with the execution.
A U.S. marshal lifted a black telephone inside the execution room – a small square room inside the prison with green tiles and windows looking at the witness rooms – and asked if there was anything to impede the execution. He said there was not and the execution could proceed.
Lee had a pulse oximeter on a finger of his left hand, to monitor his oxygen level, and his arms, covered in tattoos, were in black restraints. IV tubes came through a metal panel in the wall.
He breathed heavily before the drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. As the drug was being administered, he raised his head to look around. In a few moments, his chest was no longer moving.
Lee was in the execution chamber with two men the Bureau of Prisons identified as “senior BOP officials,” a U.S. marshal and his spiritual adviser, described by a prisons spokesperson as an “Appalachian pagan minister.” No one wore masks.
One of the senior prison officials in the room announced Lee’s time of death, and the curtain closed.
Two other federal executions are scheduled for this week, though one remains on hold in a separate legal claim.
There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March – one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama had one in early March.
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.
Though there hadn’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.
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 the review had been completed, allowing executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily since the 2003 federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019.
Veillette said she and her family may never get closure now that Lee has died, and said it is unfair they carry the burden of the death of their loved ones, and the unjust death of the man who killed them. She said plans to keep advocating for families of the other victims of inmates on death row who are still set to be executed, and she plans to try to share what happened to there family as much as she can before the 2020 election.
”I’m going to look at what we can do for other families so no one else ever has to go through this,” she said.
The Associated Press and Spokesman-Review reporter Rebecca White also contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.