US carries out first federal execution in 17 years, Supreme Court clears the way
The federal government carried out its first execution in 17 years early Tuesday when Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted in the 1996 slaying of an Arkansas family, was put to death by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Lee, a once-avowed white supremacist, was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m., following a protracted legal fight that delayed his execution by more than 16 hours.
"You're killing an innocent man," Lee said before he died.
Lee's execution had been scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday, but a series of legal challenges delayed the sentence. A 5-4 Supreme Court decision in the early hours of the morning Tuesday ultimately cleared the way for Lee's lethal injection and the scheduled executions of three other inmates. Two are scheduled to proceed this week and another in August.
Lee's attorney, Ruth Friedman, denounced the government's action as "reckless and relentless," saying that her client remained strapped to the gurney for hours as the last legal challenges played out over night.
“It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic," Friedman said. "It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when ... the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it. And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping."
Attorney General William Barr said Lee "finally faced the justice he deserved."
"The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses," Barr said in a written statement.
Inside the Terre Haute execution chamber early Tuesday, the curtains were rolled back from four witness room windows at 7:46 a.m., to reveal Lee strapped to the gurney with his arms out to his sides and two IV lines running from a port in the wall behind him.
Asked if he wanted to make a final statement, Lee was defiant, asserting his innocence and criticizing the court system for ignoring DNA evidence.
“I bear no responsibility for the deaths of the Mueller family,” he said, referring to victims William Mueller, his wife Nancy and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah. He claimed that he and co-defendant, Chevie Kehoe, were in another part of the country at the time of the murders.
It took two or three minutes after the lethal drug was administered for Lee to die. He didn’t appear to be suffering. His lips moved like he was blowing bubbles, but nothing came out. At one point he raised his head slightly, then put it back down.
He appeared completely still at 8:02 a.m., but remained on the table for another five minutes before he was pronounced dead.
Lee and Kehoe targeted the Mueller family as part of a botched effort to fund a white supremacist enclave in the Pacific Northwest. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, the killers covered the victims' heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois Bayou in Arkansas.
Until the Supreme Court acted early Tuesday, the appeals court had denied the government's request to lift the stay ordered by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who concluded that four inmates, including Lee, had not exhausted their challenges to the government's execution protocol, which they claimed risked inflicting "severe pain."
The judge's ruling touched off a legal scramble that lasted deep into the night and early morning.
Chutkan said that the federal government's new method of lethal injection, using the single drug pentobarbital, had produced evidence of severe breathing problems. Chutkan went on to say that the condemned prisoners had identified other alternatives, including a multi-drug mixture or the rarely used firing squad.
Chutkan's ruling was followed by a flurry of Supreme Court filings in which the government and advocates for Lee and the other inmates continued their legal battle, even as Lee's scheduled 4 p.m. execution time lapsed without action.
"Hours before the first execution was set to take place, the District Court preliminarily enjoined all four executions on the ground that the use of pentobarbital likely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment," Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, adding that vacating the injunction is "appropriate" because the inmates' claim was not likely to succeed as it faced an "exceedingly high bar."
The filings raised a range of questions, from the threat posed by coronavirus to witnesses and continuing disputes related to the execution protocol to a claim that Lee's trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance.
Friday, an Indiana federal judge blocked Lee's execution, citing the threat posed by the resurgent coronavirus. U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson acted on a legal challenge brought by family members of the victims who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as prospective witnesses.
An appeals court reversed that decision Sunday night, concluding that the challenge "lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous."
Lawyers for Earlene Peterson, 81, and other family members not only cited the health risks involving their planned travel to Indiana but claimed that federal prison officials could not provide adequate assurances once they arrived at the prison complex.
The family had planned to attend Lee's execution, even though they were opposed to his death sentence.
Peterson, the young victim's grandmother, said Lee's co-defendant, Kehoe, was the unquestioned ringleader in the robbery-murder. Kehoe was sentenced to life in prison.