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Federal appeals court puts hold on first federal executions in 17 years; legal battle to continue

  • July 14, 2020

A federal appeals court in Washington late Monday put a hold on the first federal executions in 17 years, concluding that the condemned inmates had not exhausted their challenges to the government’s execution protocols as posing a risk of “severe pain.”

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., came just before midnight ET, supporting a district court ruling issued just hours before Daniel Lewis Lee was set to die by lethal injection at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. The appeals court denied the government’s request to lift the stay ordered by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan and called for a new briefing schedule extending into next week.

“Because 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 court finds that it is in the public interest to issue a preliminary injunction,” Chutkan wrote in her Monday order, which touched off a legal scramble that lasted deep into the night.

Chutkan said that the federal government’s new method of lethal injection, using the single drug pentobarbital, had produced evidence of severe breathing problems. Chutkan went on to say that the condemned prisoners had identified other alternatives, including a multi-drug mixture or the rarely-used firing squad.

Chutkan’s ruling was followed by a flurry of Supreme Court filings in which the government and advocates for Lee and the other inmates continued their legal battle, even as Lee’s scheduled 4 p.m. execution time lapsed without action.

The filings raised a range of questions, from the threat posed by coronavirus to witnesses and continuing disputes related to the execution protocol to a claim that Lee’s trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance.

“We are breathing a collective sigh of relief that the court has stepped in to prevent these executions from occurring without full review by the courts,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The fact that we got this close, during the worst public health crisis in our lifetime, should raise serious alarm bells.”    

Friday, an Indiana federal judge blocked Lee’s execution, citing the threat posed by the resurgent coronavirus. U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson acted on a legal challenge brought by family members of the victims who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as prospective witnesses.

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Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his arraignment hearing in the Pope County Detention Center Oct. 31, 1997, in Russellville, Ark.

An appeals court reversed that decision Sunday night, concluding that the challenge “lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous.”

Lawyers for Earlene Peterson, 81, and other family members not only cited the health risks involving their planned travel to Indiana but claimed that federal prison officials could not provide adequate assurances once they arrived at the prison complex.

The family planned to attend Lee’s execution, even though they are opposed to his death sentence for the murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, Sarah Powell.

Peterson, Sarah’s grandmother, said Lee’s co-defendant was the unquestioned ringleader in the robbery-murder in 1996 yet was sentenced to life in prison.

The Arkansas judge who presided at trial and the lead prosecutor in the case also have expressed their opposition to Lee’s death sentence.

Two other inmates, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken, were scheduled for execution Wednesday and Friday, respectively, at the federal Terre Haute complex.

“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” Honken’s attorney Shawn Nolan said Monday. “The district court’s injunction ensures that the courts will have the opportunity to carefully address those issues. Given that these executions threaten to become COVID-19 super-spreader events, the injunction will also protect the lives and health of the correctional staff, victim family members, spiritual advisers, attorneys and others who must witness the executions.”

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