The United States government on Tuesday carried out the first federal execution in 17 years, putting to death a man who killed an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. The execution came despite the objection of the victims’ family.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“I didn’t do it,” Lee said before he was executed. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer … You’re killing an innocent man.”
The decision to move forward with the execution – the first by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 – drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics argued that the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.
“The government has been trying to plough forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.
The developments are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
Lee’s execution took place after a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early on Tuesday in a 5-4 ruling and allowed it to move forward.
Four scheduled federal executions had been suspended by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US district court in Washington, DC, on Monday to allow for legal challenges to the lethal injection that was to be used.
Chutkan’s order came less than seven hours before the former white supremacist Lee, who was convicted along with another man of murdering a family of three during a robbery intended to help fund the founding of an “Aryan Peoples Republic”, was scheduled to be executed.
The prisoners “have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a Federal Court”, the Supreme Court said in a ruling released in the early hours of Tuesday.
“We vacate the District Court’s preliminary injunction so that the … executions may proceed as planned.”
Attorney General William Barr originally scheduled five executions for last December, but was ordered to delay them by Chutkan while long-running lawsuits challenging the government’s lethal-injection protocol played out.
In staying the executions, Chutkan ruled that the use of a single drug, pentobarbital, to carry out the executions could cause “extreme pain and needless suffering” and may violate a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Lee became the first federal inmate to be executed in the US since 2003 and the first since President Donald Trump announced plans to resume federal executions.
There have been just three federal executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
Lee and another man, Chevie Kehoe, were convicted in Arkansas in 1999 of the 1996 murders of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, and her eight-year-old daughter.
Lee, who had since renounced his white supremacist beliefs according to his lawyers, was sentenced to death while Kehoe received three life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Earlene Peterson, 81, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed, has campaigned against Lee’s death sentence, saying she wants him to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“It’s an easy way out,” Peterson told The New York Times. “He should have to live through this. Like I did.”
Peterson and relatives of other victims also filed a lawsuit seeking to delay the execution, arguing that it was dangerous for them to travel to Terre Haute to witness Lee’s execution because of the coronavirus pandemic.
An appeals court dismissed the suit on Sunday, but Baker Kurrus, a lawyer for the families, said he would take it to the Supreme Court.
“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,” Kurrus said.
The Supreme Court, however, denied their application.
The Bureau of Prisons said Sunday that a member of the Terre Haute prison staff had tested positive for COVID-19.
“There’s no reason for anybody to be carrying out executions right now because of the pandemic,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
More than 1,000 US religious leaders urged Trump last week to abandon plans to resume federal executions and Dunham accused the president of “political use of the death penalty”.
Only a handful of US states, mainly in the conservative South, still carry out executions. In 2019, 22 people were put to death.
Most crimes are tried under state laws, but federal courts handle some of the most serious crimes, including terror attacks and hate crimes.