The Federal Government Just Executed Someone for the First Time in 17 Years

Two additional executions have been scheduled for this week at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, after a decades-old informal ban.
July 14, 2020, 11:30am
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
AP Photo/Michael Conroy

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The Trump administration carried out the first federal execution in 17 years on Tuesday morning when it killed Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of killing a family in Arkansas in 1996, including an 8-year-old girl.

“I didn’t do it,” Lee said just 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.”

Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. EDT at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The execution was made possible after the Supreme Court ruled early on Tuesday morning to overturn a U.S. District Judge’s ruling that blocked the execution of Lee and three other prisoners on death row.

The prisoners had brought a legal challenge on the basis that the single drug used in the executions — pentobarbital — interferes with breathing before the heart is stopped. This produces a sensation of drowning or asphyxiation, resulting in extreme terror and panic.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision by a 5-4 ruling, saying in an unsigned opinion that the prisoners’ “executions may proceed as planned because the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim" and "that claim faces an exceedingly high bar."

The Eighth Amendment prevents cruel and unusual punishment.

“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution, told AP.

Along with Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey and Dustin Lee Honken are both scheduled to be executed this week. Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled to be executed in August. All executions are to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

Civil rights groups and the family of Lee’s victims questioned the timing of the executions, which are taking place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging large swaths of the U.S.

Earlene Peterson — whose daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law were tortured, killed, and dumped in a lake by Lee and an accomplice — has repeatedly said she opposed Lee's execution, saying she wants him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Last year the Trump administration announced it would resume federal executions after an informal moratorium on the practice that lasted almost two decades. Last month, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of Lee, Purkey, Honken, and Nelson.

The four liberal judges on the Supreme Court bench dissented against Tuesday’s decision to allow the executions.

In dissents, the justices questioned the legitimacy of the single-drug protocol the government was going to use, and said the rushed nature of the ruling did not allow the defendants adequate time to present their case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that was also joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as Justice Elena Kagan that the court was accepting “the Government’s artificial claim of urgency to truncate ordinary procedures of judicial review.”

“This Court now grants the Government’s last-minute application to vacate the stay, allowing death-sentenced inmates to be executed before any court can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual,” Kagan wrote in part.

Cover: Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Ind., Monday, July 13, 2020, where Daniel Lewis Lee, a convicted killer, was scheduled to be executed Monday at the federal prison in Terre Haute. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)