(CN) — A federal judge in Indiana temporarily delayed Monday’s scheduled execution of a white supremacist convicted 20 years ago of killing an Arkansas gun dealer and his family. The delay came in response to a request from the murder victims’ family members who fear traveling to witness the execution due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of the Aryan People’s Resistance, was convicted in the 1996 murders of William and Nancy Mueller and Nancy’s 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
Lee was sentenced to death, but his execution has been postponed by appeals and a nearly two-decade drought in federal executions. Lee was to have been the first of five executions carried out by the federal government since 2003, following U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s move last year to restore federal executions.
Three family members of Lee’s victims sued in federal court seeking to temporarily halt the scheduled execution because they fear being exposed to the coronavirus if they are forced to travel long distances.
U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief judge for the Southern District of Indiana, granted a preliminary injunction Friday afternoon, “pending final resolution of the merits of this case or until further order of this court.”
Magnus-Stinson said the court will vacate the injunction upon a showing by the defendants that setting a date for Lee’s execution will comply with the Federal Death Penalty Act and demonstrate “reasonable consideration of the plaintiffs’ right to be present for the execution.”
Baker Kurrus, a Little Rock, Arkansas, attorney for the victims’ family members, said in a statement issued Friday that the family was grateful. Kurrus said the delay “will enable them to exercise their right to attend the execution in the future while protecting themselves against the ravages of Covid-19.”
Plaintiffs seeking the temporary injunction — Earlene Peterson, Kimma Gurel and Monica Veillette — are the sister, mother, grandmother and niece of the victims. They had been selected by the warden at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, to witness the execution.
Peterson, Nancy Mueller’s mother and Sarah Powell’s grandmother, is 81 years old and lives in Hector, Arkansas, more than 500 miles from Terre Haute, according to the judge’s order.
“She suffers from congestive heart failure and has other underlying health conditions that put her at increased risk for developing Covid-19-related complications,” Judge Magnus-Stinson wrote.
“I am now faced with an impossible choice of either not exercising my right to attend the execution, or traveling in dangerous conditions which could cause me to become very sick, or even die,” Peterson said in a declaration filed with the court. “I want to attend this execution at a time when it is safe for people to travel.”
In response to the plaintiffs’ petition, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the Federal Death Penalty Act “makes no provision for witnesses such as plaintiffs to attend an execution, much less provides them a private cause of action to protect their rights,” the judge wrote.
She added, while the FDPA does not explicitly mention victims, it does require that an execution must proceed “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”
Arkansas law “provides significant rights to victims’ family members in the context of an execution,” she wrote.
The Justice Department is expected to appeal the ruling, according to media reports.