US to execute first federal prisoner in 17 years

Three men to receive lethal injections this week after a divided Supreme Court decision

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US to execute first federal prisoner in 17 years

The Trump Administration is going to execute the first federal prisoner in 17 years after the Supreme Court has overruled lower courts’ orders, clearing the way for federal executions.

Daniel Lewis Lee was slated to receive a lethal dose of pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, at 4 pm Eastern Time Monday but was prevented by an order issued Monday morning by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan.

The  Supreme Court acted by a divisive majority vote of 5-4 and allowed the execution to proceed. The top court, where conservatives are in the majority, said in an unsigned opinion that the executions of the federal prisoners “may proceed as planned.” The four liberal justices dissented.

The Supreme Court ruling came after a federal appeals court in Washington rejected the administration’s plea to step in. The Bureau of Prisons kept on with the preparations for Daniel Lewis Lee’s execution even as the lower courts ordered against it.

However, Lee’s lawyers said the authorities cannot go forward with the execution after midnight under federal regulations.

Another two executions are scheduled this week, Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday and Dustin Lee Honken on Friday. While a fourth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is slated to be executed in August.

Lee is a resident of Yukon, Oklahoma. He was convicted in Arkansas of the murder of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell in 1996.

Prison officials said the inmate has been given access to social visitors and allowed to receive mail.

The witnesses for Lee are likely to include three family members, his lawyers, and spiritual adviser, who also was granted access to the prisoner.

Opposition to Policy on Executions

The US administration has been trying to go ahead with these executions despite several unanswered questions about the legality of its new protocol, said Shawn Nolan, who is one of the attorneys for the people facing execution.

The federal appeals court in Chicago on Sunday had lifted an injunction put in place last week after some family members of the victims argued they would be at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the executions.

One of the families appealed to the Supreme Court on the same grounds but their claims were also denied by the top court.

The civil rights groups have also strongly criticized the decision to move forward with the executions during the pandemic that has already killed more than 135,000 people in America and is ravaging prisons across the county.

Critics say Trump government is manufacturing an unnecessary urgency for political gain.

The recent developments on this count are also expected to add a new front to the national debate on criminal justice reform, ahead of the 2020 elections.

Protests against Death Penalty of Federal Prisoner

On Monday, anti-death penalty protesters had started gathering in Terre Haute. Chief organizer Abraham Bonowitz said only a few dozen protesters would join him as his group, Death Penalty Action, was not encouraging others to show up because of coronavirus concerns.

“It’s symbolic,” he said about the protests. “We are just here to say that this is wrong,” added Bonowitz, who drove a vehicle through the town with a sign emblazoned on the side of a trailer that read, “Stop executions now!”

In the Name of Victim Families?

In an interview last week, Attorney General William Barr said that the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences given by the courts.

He added that it was essential to carry out all sentences, including the death penalty, to bring a sense of closure to the victim families and the communities where the killings happened.

But some relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose the idea.

A relative of the victims said for them it’s a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this.’

Coronavirus Concerns

The federal prison system has been struggling in recent months to curb the increasing number of virus cases behind bars.

According to statistics, there are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among the inmates at the Terre Haute prison while one prisoner has died.

But Barr said he believes the authorities can carry out the executions without any risk. The Bureau of Prisons has taken several additional measures, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks, he added.

However on Sunday, the Justice Department disclosed that a staffer involved in the execution preparations had tested positive for the coronavirus, though it said the man did not visit the execution chamber nor had he come into contact with the specialized team sent to handle Lee’s execution.

Recent History of Capital Punishment

Executions have been rare on the federal level and the federal government has executed only three convicts since the restoration of the death penalty in 1988.

The most recent execution came in 2003 when Louis Jones was put to death for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young woman soldier in 1995.

Following a botched execution by the state of Oklahoma in 2014, then-president Barack Obama ordered the Justice Department to carry out a broad review of the death penalty and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for the resumption of the execution of capital punishments.

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