First Federal Execution in 17 Years Blocked With Hours to Spare

Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his Oct. 31, 1997, arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. Today Lee is 47 and sentenced to die by lethal injection after he was convicted of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. (Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Hours before Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to go to the lethal injection chamber, a federal judge on Monday stopped the Trump administration from carrying out the first federal execution in 17 years.

The ruling out of Washington comes after the Supreme Court last month declined to take up the case. Several appeals courts including the D.C. Circuit have paved the way for the executions to proceed. 

But U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan passed down a preliminary injunction Monday, determining that Lee and three other prisoners are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims that the government has illegally brought back capital punishment after more than a decade-long hiatus. 

Justice is not served by short-circuiting the legal process, the Obama appointee concluded, having issued a similar block last year based on the merits of at least one of the inmates’ claims. 

“As noted in the court’s 2019 order, the public interest is not served by executing individuals before they have had the opportunity to avail themselves of the legal process to challenge the legality of their executions,” Chutkan wrote. “‘Applying the law in a way that violates the Constitution is never in the public’s interest.’”

The judge noted that when the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 last year to overturn her preliminary injunction, the appeals court said several claims would remain open on remand. 

She also argued that a series of eleventh-hour rulings in legal battles over the executions is no fault of the prisoners. 

“The succession of last-minute rulings is the result of the government’s decision to set short execution dates even as many claims, including those addressed here, were pending,” Chutkan wrote. 

Reacting to the ruling, an attorney for Lee said it would have been unconscionable for the government to execute her client while disputes remain unresolved over evidence presented at trial. 

While Lee sits on death row, his co-defendant was sentenced to life in prison for the 1996 murder of a couple and the wife’s 8-year-old daughter. 

“In what may be an unprecedented occurrence in a capital case, the trial judge, the lead prosecutor, and the victims’ family all oppose executing Danny Lee and believe a life sentence is appropriate,” Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, said in a statement. “The government has portrayed Mr. Lee as a white supremacist and a child-killer. Neither is true.”

Attorney General William Barr announced last year that the Trump administration would execute prisoners for first time since 2003, replacing the three-drug cocktail used in most of the 30 states that carry out capital punishment with pentobarbital sodium.

But according to expert statements that the Washington court found reputable on Monday, the new protocols on which the Trump administration plans to rely can cause inmates extreme pain and needless suffering.

“Pulmonary edema, which interferes with breathing, ‘produces sensations of drowning and asphyxiation’ resulting in ‘extreme pain, terror and panic,’” the judge wrote, quoting autopsy findings from the record. 

Court battles over the policy change have circled on whether the administration violated federal law and circumvented administrative procedures when it rolled out the new protocols. 

The Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling Monday, citing a policy for pending litigation.

Attorney General William Barr has argued that the four prisoners scheduled to die in 2020 — Lee, followed by Wesley Ira Purkey on July 15, Dustin Lee Honken on July 17 and Keith Dwayne Nelson on August 28 — are guilty of gruesome crimes. 

But the family of the victims killed now more than two decades ago has long fought to save 47-year-old Lee from execution. 

Last week, a federal judge in Indiana temporarily delayed the prisoner’s death, but the Seventh Circuit overturned the lower court order yesterday. 

The ruling from the nation’s capital on Monday morning reinstates that hold. 

Earlene Peterson, the mother and grandmother of the victims killed in the crime involving Lee, has pleaded with President Donald Trump for clemency and urged him to grant the prisoner life without parole. 

“I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” she said in a video message to the president.

“She wouldn’t want it and I don’t want it,” Peterson added. “That’s not the way it should be. That’s not the God I serve.”

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