US judge delays federal executions, the first in 17 years

Three men convicted of murder were scheduled to die by lethal injection this week at an Indiana prison beginning Monday.

    Guard towers and razor wire ring the compound at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana where the US government will conduct the first federal executions in 17 years [File: Michael Conroy/AP Photo]
    Guard towers and razor wire ring the compound at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana where the US government will conduct the first federal executions in 17 years [File: Michael Conroy/AP Photo]

    A United States district judge on Monday ordered a new delay in federal executions, hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out at a federal prison in Indiana. President Donald Trump's administration immediately appealed to a higher court, asking that the executions move forward.

    US 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 Trump administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.

    The new hold on executions came a day after a federal appeals court lifted a hold on the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 4pm (20:00 GMT) on Monday at a federal prison in 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.

    The execution, the first of a federal death row inmate since 2003, comes after a federal appeals court lifted an injunction on Sunday that had been put in place last week after the victims' family argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution. The family had vowed to appeal 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 US and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the family of Lee's victims.

    The decision has been criticised as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that is not high on the list of American concerns right now. It is also likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

    In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department had 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,'" said relative Monica Veillette.

    The relatives would be travelling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus's spread is virtually impossible. 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.

    "The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee's execution and their own health and safety," the family's attorney, Baker Kurrus, said on Sunday.

    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.

    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 specialised team sent to the prison to handle the execution.

    The victim's family hopes there won't be an execution, ever. They have asked the Justice Department and President Donald Trump not to move forward with the execution and have long asked that Lee be given a life sentence instead.

    The last person executed by the federal government was Louis Jones Jr, a US Army soldier put to death in 2003 after he was convicted of the rape and murder of another soldier. He was one of three individuals executed during George W Bush's presidency; before Bush no federal inmates had been put to death since 1963.

    But before the pandemic, the economy and healthcare were Americans' top priorities for the government to work on in 2020, with 59 percent and 50 percent naming the two, respectively, in an open-ended question in an Associated Press-NORC poll from December. Some 35 percent said immigration was one of the most important issues the government should work on in 2020, and about as many referenced politics or partisan gridlock.

    The percentage of Americans in favour of the death penalty stood at 60 percent in the 2018 General Social Survey, a long-running trends survey. That is about where it was in the 1970s. Support has steadily ticked back down after peaking at 75 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Most Democrats oppose it. By contrast, President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.

    "This appears to be a distraction," said Samuel Spital, the litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. There are several things that should be at the top of the agenda for the Justice Department right now, he said, including the coronavirus. Another "should be an effort to address the widespread problem of police violence against Black and brown communities in this country which has finally captured the public's attention", he said.

    Death penalty
    A gurney at a jail in Huntsville, Texas where executions take place. [File: Pat Sullivan/AP Photo]

    The majority of people on death row are Black and Hispanic, and the number of cases authorised by the attorney general seeking death since the late 1980s are mostly non-white people.

    But the three men chosen to die this week are all white:

    • Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old. Family members of Lee's victims have asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus puts them at risk if they travel to attend the execution. They have asked that the execution be put off until a treatment or a vaccine is available for the virus.
    • Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman.
    • Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children.
    Inside Story Americas - The law of executions (25:03)

    The Justice Department had scheduled five executions set to begin in December, but some of the inmates challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.

    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 Jones was executed. Though there has not been a federal execution since then, 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 that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for 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, but not all.

    SOURCE: AP news agency