The Trump administration drove the execution of the first federal prison inmate in 17 years early Tuesday after a divided Supreme Court overturned the lower courts and ruled the federal executions.
Daniel Lewis Lee was supposed to receive a lethal dose of the potent sedative pentobarbital at 4 p.m. EDT Monday. However, a court order by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday morning prevented Lee's execution.
A federal appeals court in Washington rejected the government's request to intervene and allowed the halt before the Supreme Court acted with 5-4 votes. Nevertheless, Lee's lawyers insisted that the federal law execution could not continue after midnight.
In an unsigned statement, the court said with the majority of the conservatives that the "executions of the prisoners could proceed as planned". The four liberal judges disagreed.
According to court records, Lee's execution was scheduled for 4:00 am on Tuesday.
The Bureau of Prisons had continued preparations, although the lower courts had interrupted the process.
Lee from Yukon, Oklahoma, had access to social visitors, visited him with his spiritual counselor, and was allowed to receive mail, prison officials said. Three family members, his lawyers, and spiritual adviser are expected to be witnesses for Lee.
Lee was convicted in Arkansas in 1996 of killing arms dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy and their 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell.
"The government has attempted to speed up these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol," said Shawn Nolan, one of the men's lawyers facing the federal execution.
The decision to move forward during a global health pandemic that killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and devastated prisons nationwide has been reviewed by both civil rights groups and family members of Lee's victims.
Some of the victims' family members argued that if they had to travel to participate, they were at high risk of the coronavirus and tried to delay the execution until travel was safer. These claims were initially granted, but eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.
Critics argue that the government creates an unnecessary and fabricated urgency for political gain. The developments should also give a new front to the national discussion on the reform of the criminal justice system in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
Two more executions are planned for this week, although one, Wesley Ira Purkey, has been put on hold in a separate legal claim. Dustin Lee Honken's execution was scheduled for Friday.
A fourth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is due to be executed in August.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Department of Justice was required to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to give US victims and loved ones a sense of closure in communities where the murders took place.
But relatives of those killed by Lee firmly reject this idea. They wanted to be present to counter any claim that this was done on their behalf.
“For us, it's about being there and saying, 'This doesn't happen in our name; We don't want that, ”said relatives Monica Veillette.
The federal prison system has had problems in recent months to contain the exploding number of coronavirus cases behind bars. According to federal statistics, there are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases in Terre Haute prison inmates and one inmate has died there.
Barr said he believed the Bureau of Prisons could "carry out these executions without being at risk." The agency has taken a number of additional measures, including temperature testing and the obligation for witnesses to wear masks.
However, on Sunday, the Department of Justice announced that an employee involved in the preparation of the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus, but said it was not in the execution chamber and had not contacted anyone on the specialized team who the execution was sent for treatment.
The three men who were due to be executed this week had also received execution dates when Barr announced that the federal government would resume executions last year, which ended an informal moratorium on the federal death penalty since the matter was no longer public was known.
Federal executions were rare and the government has only killed three defendants since the death penalty was restored in 1988 – most recently in 2003 when Louis Jones was executed in 1995 for kidnapping, raping and murdering a young soldier.
After a botched execution of the state in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama instructed the Department of Justice in 2014 to conduct a comprehensive review of the death penalty and fatal injection problems.
The Attorney General said in July last year that the review of the Obama era had ended and was clearing the way for the executions to resume.
Associate press writers Colleen Long and Mark Sherman in Washington, Michael Tarm in Chicago and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark. Contributed to this report.