Supreme Court Sanctions Eighth Federal Execution Under Trump

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration executed the eighth federal inmate this year just before midnight, after a late Thursday ruling from the Supreme Court overturned a federal judge’s temporary reprieve. 

Orlando Hall, 49, was pronounced dead at 11:47 p.m. EST, after the Bureau of Prisons injected him with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. 

Now the second Black inmate executed by the U.S. government this year, Hall was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for his role in the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 16-year-old white Arkansas girl in 1994. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government has carried out more executions this year than there has been every year since 1954 combined.

The D.C. Circuit had ruled just one day before that the Trump administration violated federal law by executing prisoners with pentobarbital that had not been prescribed by a doctor. The decision came from a divided panel but did not otherwise block the government from executing Hall. Trump plans to carry out two more executions over the coming weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Hall was executed after the Supreme Court vacated a stay entered hours earlier by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who said the public should have confidence that death sentences are being carried out humanely.

“The court is deeply concerned that the government intends to proceed with a method of execution that this court and the Court of Appeals have found violates federal law,” the Washington judge wrote. 

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would have kept Chutkan’s stay in place. The order is otherwise unsigned.

The Justice Department said in a statement that Hall’s appeals of his sentence and conviction had been rejected by every court that considered them. The government filed an appeal to overturn the stay within an hour of the ruling on Thursday.

Back in August, when Chutkan declined to block the government’s execution of Keith Nelson, the Obama appointee had said high court precedent prevented her from blocking upcoming executions based on claims that inmates were likely to “suffer excruciating pain.”

Before the Supreme Court’s intervention, Hall’s attorney Amy Lentz criticized the government’s plans to press ahead with executions even after Chutkan found months prior they violated the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

“It would be unconscionable for the government to proceed with any executions until the court has had a full and fair opportunity to address this issue,” Lentz had said in a statement. 

After the Trump administration ended what had been a 17-year hiatus on capital punishment at the federal level, death-penalty attorneys have been fighting since this summer to block a lineup of executions.

They argue the lethal-injection protocol unveiled last year by Attorney General William Barr triggers a condition that mirrors drowning while inmates are still sensate. 

In her ruling on Thursday, Chuktan wrote: “New evidence presented after each execution appears to chip away” at the government’s claim that, even if pentobarbital causes so-called flash pulmonary edema, it happens after an inmate has lost consciousness. 

That gradual erosion of the Trump administration’s defense — combined with the D.C. Circuit ruling the day before — undermined her decision to deny a stay in the Nelson case based on the fact that “reasonable minds could differ” on when flash pulmonary edema sets in, the judge added. 

Chutkan’s ruling came just hours after one of the judge’s colleagues in Washington agreed to grant the only woman on federal death row more time to file a clemency appeal after her attorneys contracted Covid-19. 

The Justice Department planned to execute Lisa Montgomery, 52, on Dec. 8 but now must wait until the new year.  

The government also scheduled Brandon Bernard for execution next month, the third federal death sentence Trump plans to carry out during the lame-duck period. Bernard’s attorneys requested Wednesday, after the appeals court decision, that the Supreme Court issue a stay. 

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