Coronavirus: US judge halts first federal execution in 17 years

Family of the victims wanted to attend execution scheduled July 13, but was scared to travel because of coronavirus.

In this March 17, 2003 file photo, guard towers and razor wire ring the compound at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., the site of the last federal execution. Democratic presidential candidat
Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on July 13, but a judge has blocked it, after the victims' family sued [File:Michael Conroy/The Associated Press]

A federal judge in Indiana in the United States halted on Friday the first federal execution planned in 17 years, citing concerns over the coronavirus by the victims’ family.

Daniel Lee, 47, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday. Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

But Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that the execution would be put on hold because the family of the victims wanted to attend but were afraid of travelling during the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 130,000 people and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

Following the ruling, the Justice Department immediately notified the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals that it would be appealing Magnus-Stinson’s decision.

Attorney General William Barr has said part of the reason to resume executions was to carry out the sentences imposed by the court and to deliver a sense of justice to the victim’s families; the relatives of those killed by Lee did not want that.

They have pleaded for years that Lee instead should receive the same life sentence as the ringleader in the deadly scheme. The relatives, including Earlene Branch Peterson, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the killings, had urged the Trump administration for months not to move forward with the death sentence and had argued their grief is compounded by the push to execute Lee in the middle of a pandemic.

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

“The harm to Ms. Peterson, for example, is being forced to choose whether being present for the execution of a man responsible for the death of her daughter and granddaughter is worth defying her doctor”s orders and risking her own life,” the judge wrote.

The injunction delays the execution until there is no longer such an emergency. The court order applies only to Lee’s execution and does not halt two other executions that are scheduled for later next week.

The decision to proceed with the executions had been criticised as a dangerous and political move. Critics argued the government is, instead, creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency about a topic that is not high on the list of American concerns right now.

Chevie Kehoe, whom prosecutors described as the ringleader, recruited Lee in 1995 for his white supremacist organisation. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of the Muellers and Sarah in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometres) northwest of Little Rock. At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Lee’s lawyers also cited evidence from his trial that Kehoe actually killed Sarah.

The executions appeared set to happen following a Supreme Court decision refusing to block them and a lower court affirming the ruling. It is not clear what will happen with the other scheduled executions, which are scheduled next week for Wednesday and Friday.

Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman, is scheduled to die Wednesday. Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children, is scheduled to be executed Friday.

Keith Dwayne Nelson, scheduled to be executed in August, was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home, raping her in a forest behind a church and then strangling her.

Source: AP