The first federal execution in the US for 17 years has been blocked just hours before it was set to take place.
A US court has ruled the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee via lethal injection must be postponed, along with three other executions.
Lee, a white supremacist, tortured and slaughtered a family of Jewish descent, including an eight-year-old girl, her mum and stepdad.
Family of Lee’s victims threatened to sue over fears attending his execution could see them exposed to coronavirus.
Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, of the Southern District of Indiana, halted the execution on Friday but this was overturned despite a correctional officer at USP Terre Haute, Indiana, testing positive for Covid-19 on Sunday.
However, today US media reports a federal judge in Washington DC has once again blocked the Trump administration from carrying out federal executions by lethal injection.
Judge Tanya Chutkan issued an injunction today, stopping what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years from being carried out later in the day in order to allow legal challenges against the government’s lethal-injection protocol to continue.
The judge, of the U.S. district court in Washington, ordered the US Department of Justice to delay the executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Keith Dwayne Nelson until further order of the court. They had been scheduled for July and August.
In the injunction, the judge said: “The public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed in a manner consistent with our Constitution.”
The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to go ahead at 4pm local time today.
The Justice Department is understood to have immediately appealed against the injunction.
Efforts to resume capital punishment at the federal level were underway within a few months of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, ending a de facto moratorium that began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, while long-running legal challenges to lethal injections played out in federal courts.
Judge Chutkan has been overseeing cases brought by inmates on death row who argue that the Justice Department’s new one-drug protocol breaks various administrative and drug-control laws and is unconstitutional.
The Justice Department had planned to execute Lee in Terre Haute, Indiana, using lethal injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate.
Some relatives of Lee’s victims opposed him receiving the death sentence while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.
The department had scheduled two more executions for later in the week and a fourth in August, of Purkey, Honken and Nelson, who were all convicted of murdering children.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some of the lawyers of inmates on death row from visiting their clients. At least one employee involved in the executions tested positive for Covid-19, the Justice Department said over the weekend.
Earlene Branch Peterson, 81, whose daughter Nancy Mueller and grandchild Sarah Powell were killed by Lee and Chevie Kehoe in 1996, is concerned attending the execution would put her at unnecessary risk.
She had previously urged President Donald Trump to give Lee clemency and have his sentence reduced to life in prison, like his accomplice.
On May 4, 1999, a jury in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offences, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death.
On January 11, 1996, after robbing and shooting the victims – who also included Bill Mueller – with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou, the court heard.
Ms Peterson said her daughter, 28, was due at a gun show in Oklahoma with her husband, Bill, 56, a gun dealer, on the day they were murdered.
“It was like they just vanished, just disappeared. We started searching for them, it was pretty horrible,” said Ms Peterson in a video last year.
The bodies of the three victims’ – who had been set upon by Lee and Kehoe at their home in Searcy County, Arkansas – were discovered five months after they went missing.
Baker Kurrus, attorney for Earlene Branch Peterson and her daughter and granddaughter Kimma Gurel and Monica Veillette, said the family had been put in an “untenable position”.
“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,” she said.
“Eighty-one year old Earlene Branch Peterson, the mother and grandmother of the victims, along with Ms Peterson’s surviving daughter and granddaughter, wanted to attend the execution and had planned to be there when it was scheduled for December 2019.
“Because the Government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these three women would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time.
“They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to the US Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal.
“My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible.”
Ms Peterson previously said executing Lee does not honour her daughter, instead it “dirties her name”.
“She doesn’t want it and I don’t want it. That’s not the way it should be. That’s not the God I serve,” she said, fighting back tears.
Lee’s attorney Ruth Friedman last month said her client was convicted using “junk science and false evidence” and refuted claims from the US Department of Justice that he is a white supremacist.
“The government has portrayed Mr Lee as a white supremacist and a child-killer. Neither is true,” she continued.
“He has long since renounced the skinhead groups he joined as a youth, and the government has now dramatically re-characterised its case against Mr Lee.”
According to Ms Peterson, it was argued in court by Lee’s attorneys that Kehoe told Lee to kill Sarah but he refused, telling him “I don’t kill children”, to which Kehoe had allegedly said “I do” before killing the eight-year-old.
While Texas, Missouri and other states execute multiple condemned inmates each year, federal executions are rare.
Only three have occurred since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003, including the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
There are currently 62 people on federal death row in Terre Haute.
Opposition to the death penalty has grown in the United States, although 54 percent of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.
In announcing the planned resumption of executions, Attorney General William Barr said last year: “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
A European Union ban on selling drugs for use in executions or torture has led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to U.S. prison systems.
The Justice Department spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to make and test its drug of choice, pentobarbital, which replaces the three-drug protocol used in previous executions.
Some of the companies involved said they were not aware they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation found last week.
As with Texas and other states, the Justice Department has commissioned a private pharmacy to make the drug.