(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday prevented the Trump administration from resuming federal prisoner executions next week after an approximately 16-year pause.
The justices upheld a lower court injunction that enjoined the government from carrying out executions on four federal death row inmates, one of whom was scheduled for execution on Monday.
The lawyers for the inmates claimed the executions would have been carried out in violation of federal law, which requires that executions of prisoners must be carried out in a manner consistent with the regulations of the state in which the crime occurred.
While the ruling offered reprieve for two of the prisoners slated to be executed next week, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a short separate opinion stating he believed the Trump administration would prevail but set a 60-day deadline for an appeals action.
“In light of what is at stake, it would be preferable for the District Court’s decision to be reviewed on the merits by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before the executions are carried out,” Alito wrote in a terse one-page addendum.
He was joined in this opinion by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both appointed by President Donald Trump.
The ruling is a minor defeat for Attorney General William Barr, who announced the government would pursue the resumption of executions at the federal level for the first time since 2003 by using the drug pentobarbital.
The Justice Department said it was disappointed with the ruling but indicated its intention to argue for the executions at the appellate level.
"The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system,” the Justice Department said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkin initially halted the executions ordered by Barr after a few of the prisoners claimed the orders violated the Federal Death Penalty Act. The Justice Department sought an emergency stay from an appellate court that would’ve allowed them to commence with the executions, but a three-judge panel upheld Chutkin’s ruling.
The Justice Department then sought the intervention of the Supreme Court, which again upheld Chutkin’s ruling temporarily, but asked an appeals court to review the matter with “appropriate dispatch.”
The Justice Department concedes it must follow the method of execution used in the state in which the crime was committed, whether it be lethal injection or electric chair, but Chutkin interpreted the Federal Death Penalty Act to mandate the government execute prisoners in the same manner, down to how the catheter is inserted.
The Supreme Court justices cast doubt on whether this interpretation is durable in its Friday order.
“This reading is not supported either by the ordinary meaning of these two terms or by the use of the term 'manner' in prior federal death penalty statutes,” Alito wrote. “Moreover, the District Court’s interpretation would lead to results that Congress is unlikely to have intended.”
For instance, under that construal the federal government may have to carry out executions in a manner it knows to be less safe and copy pointless details while making it impossible for the federal government to execute prisoners who committed crimes in certain states.
None of the four prisoners contest their innocence and all were convicted of particularly heinous crimes.
Danny Lee, who was scheduled to be killed on Monday, was convicted of a 1999 killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old.
The next execution was scheduled for Friday for Wesley Ira Purkey, a Kansas man who raped and killed a 16-year-old girl in 1998 and later killed an 80-year-old woman.
Barr scheduled the other two executions for January.
Alfred Bourgeois was convicted of sexually abusing, torturing and then murdering his own two-year-old daughter. His lawyers say he is intellectually disabled.
Dustin Honken killed five people execution-style in Iowa during a five-month period in 1993. He was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to death in 2005.
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