INDIANAPOLIS (CN) – A federal judge in Indiana granted a stay of execution late Thursday to a white supremacist convicted 20 years ago of killing an Arkansas gun dealer and his family, blocking what would have been the first execution carried out by the federal government since 2003.
Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of the Aryan People’s Resistance, was convicted with Chevie Kehoe in the 1996 murders of William and Nancy Mueller and Nancy’s 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. Kehoe was sentenced to life without parole, while Lee was given the death penalty.
Lee’s case has helped thrust the ethics and efficacy of the death penalty back into the cultural spotlight, in large part since he was set to be the first of five federal inmates executed by the U.S. government in nearly two decades since Attorney General William Barr approved the executions in July.
Barr’s announcement was championed by President Donald Trump, who has long been a proponent of the death penalty. Trump previously called for the execution of Sayfullo Saipov in 2017 after a truck attack on a Hudson River bike path killed eight people, and for five teens of color known as the Central Park Five, accused and later exonerated of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989.
On Nov. 20, however, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan blocked the Trump administration from carrying out the federal executions. Chutkan, a Barack Obama appointee who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, found it likely that the administration’s plans to execute the men via lethal injection violated federal law.
The D.C. Circuit kept Chutkan’s injunction in place on Monday after the Trump administration appealed and asked for a stay.
Thursday’s ruling from U.S. District Judge James Hanlon continues that trend. Hanlon, who was appointed by Trump last year to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, wrote that Lee “has demonstrated substantial grounds upon which to challenge the legality of his execution.”
The judge found that Lee is entitled to a stay based on due process claims he brought, including that his trial counsel was ineffective and federal prosecutors suppressed evidence and mislead the jury about a prior conviction.
That prior conviction stems from a 1990 murder in Oklahoma, when Lee was 17 years old. Lee argued in his appeal that the prosecution misrepresented Lee’s role in the crime, telling jurors that although another killer wielded the knife in that case, Lee handed the knife to the killer and therefore “legally and morally” had the victim’s blood on his hands.
Hanlon posited that because federal rules block the district court from hearing a claim based on Lee’s newly discovered evidence, the situation could result in an unconstitutional death sentence.
“Whether Mr. Lee can ultimately prevail by demonstrating that the evidence exists and is newly discovered is a question for another day,” Hanlon said. “But that determination, particularly in a death penalty case, should be on a fully developed record.”
Hanlon’s ruling came mere hours after Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge joined 13 other state attorneys general in supporting the Justice Department’s push for federal executions to be carried out.
Morris Moon, senior attorney for the Federal Habeas Corpus Project and Lee’s counsel, welcomed Hanlon’s order in a statement released Thursday.
“Counsel for Mr. Lee are grateful that the court recognized the unfairness of Mr. Lee’s death sentence and look forward to proving his claims in this court,” Moon said.
Hannah Cox, national manager with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, also applauded Hanlon’s order in a statement Friday.
“Two federal judges, both appointed by Republican presidents, found on two different grounds that Danny Lee’s death sentence violates the constitution and should be invalidated, but procedural obstacles prevented both from granting relief,” she said. “It is one of many examples of the widespread bipartisan and conservative opposition to the resumption of federal executions.”
Relatives of the victims of the 1996 murders have also called for clemency for Lee. Earlene Peterson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed in the Arkansas murders, appealed directly to Trump in an October video release, stating that “the government is not doing this for me.”
Peterson, who believes Kehoe was the mastermind behind the murders, appealed to Trump as a “God-fearing man” whom she voted for in 2016 and would again in 2020, asking him to commute Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“I believe he should give Daniel Lee clemency,” Peterson said. “That would help me, and my family, more than anything.”