The first federal execution in the United States in 17 years looks set to go ahead on Monday after an appeals court overturned a lower court injunction, saying a lawsuit by the victims’ family – which had put the execution on hold – had no legal standing.
White supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee was convicted in the killing of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996 although some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence. He is due to be executed by lethal injection at the US Department of Justice’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.
His execution had been blocked on Friday by a federal judge after some of the victims’ relatives sued, saying they feared that attending could expose them to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
As the number of coronavirus infections rises in about 40 US states, the Bureau of Prisons said on Sunday that a staff member involved in preparations for the resumption of federal executions had tested positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit filed against the Department of Justice (DOJ) in federal court in Indianapolis sought to block the execution until the pandemic had passed. US District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ordered the department to delay the execution until it could show it was upholding the plaintiffs’ right to attend the execution without risking their health.
The government appealed and the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday overturned the injunction, saying no federal statute or regulation gave the victims’ family the right to attend the execution.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Baker Kurrus, the lawyers for the victims’ family said they planned to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, and that the government had put them in the “untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety.”
US Attorney General William Barr said last July that the DOJ would resume carrying out executions of some death row prisoners convicted of murder and sex crimes. There are some 62 inmates currently on federal death row.
Barr originally scheduled five executions for last December, but had to delay them while long-running lawsuits challenging the government’s lethal-injection protocol played out.
An appeals court overturned that injunction in April, and Barr announced new execution dates for July and August of four inmates, all men convicted of murdering children: Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson.
Prosecutors say Lee murdered an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife and their eight-year-old daughter, then dumped their bodies in a swamp. He was convicted in 1999 of multiple offences including murder in aid of racketeering.