Jeffrey A. Rosen, deputy attorney general of the United States, wrote this op-ed for the New York Times in support of the death penalty.
This month, for the first time in 17 years, the United States resumed carrying out death sentences for federal crimes.
On July 14, Daniel Lewis Lee was executed for the 1996 murder of a family, including an 8-year-old girl, by suffocating and drowning them in the Illinois Bayou after robbing them to fund a white-supremacist organization. On July 16, Wesley Purkey was executed for the 1998 murder of a teenage girl, whom he kidnapped, raped, killed, dismembered and discarded in a septic pond. The next day, Dustin Honken was executed for five murders committed in 1993, including the execution-style shooting of two young girls, their mother, and two prospective witnesses against him in a federal prosecution for methamphetamine trafficking.
The death penalty is a difficult issue for many Americans on moral, religious and policy grounds. But as a legal issue, it is straightforward. The United States Constitution expressly contemplates “capital” crimes, and Congress has authorized the death penalty for serious federal offenses since President George Washington signed the Crimes Act of 1790. The American people have repeatedly ratified that decision, including through the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 signed by President Bill Clinton, the federal execution of Timothy McVeigh under President George W. Bush and the decision by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department to seek the death penalty against the Boston Marathon bomber and Dylann Roof.
The recent executions reflect that consensus, as the Justice Department has an obligation to carry out the law. The decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Lee was made by Attorney General Janet Reno (who said she personally opposed the death penalty but was bound by the law) and reaffirmed by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
Mr. Purkey was prosecuted during the George W. Bush administration, and his conviction and sentence were vigorously defended throughout the Obama administration. The judge who imposed the death sentence on Mr. Honken, Mark Bennett, said that while he generally opposed the death penalty, he would not lose any sleep over Mr. Honken’s execution.
In a New York Times Op-Ed essay published on July 17, two of Mr. Lee’s lawyers criticized the execution of their client, which they contend was carried out in a “shameful rush.” That objection overlooks that Mr. Lee was sentenced more than 20 years ago, and his appeals and other permissible challenges failed, up to and including the day of his execution.
Mr. Lee’s lawyers seem to endorse a system of endless delays that prevent a death sentence from ever becoming real. But his execution date was announced almost a year ago, and was initially set for last December. It was delayed when his lawyers obtained six more months of review by unsuccessfully challenging the procedures used to carry out his lethal injection.
After an appellate court rejected their claim as “without merit,” the Justice Department rescheduled Mr. Lee’s execution, providing an additional four weeks of notice. Yet on the day of the rescheduled execution, after family members of his victims had traveled to Terre Haute, Ind., to witness the execution, a District Court granted Mr. Lee’s request for further review. That court entered a last-minute reprieve that the Supreme Court has said should be an “extreme exception.”
Given the long delay that had already occurred, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to lift the order so the execution could proceed. Mr. Lee’s lawyers opposed that request, insisting that overturning the order would result in their client’s imminent execution. After reviewing the matter, the court granted the government’s request, rebuked the District Court for creating an unjustified last-minute barrier, and directed that the execution could proceed.
In the final minutes before the execution was to occur, Mr. Lee’s lawyers claimed the execution could not proceed because Mr. Lee still had time to seek further review of an appellate court decision six weeks earlier lifting a prior stay of execution. The Justice Department decided to pause the execution for several hours while the appellate court considered and promptly rejected Mr. Lee’s request. That cautious step, taken to ensure undoubted compliance with court orders, is irreconcilable with the suggestion that the department “rushed” the execution or disregarded any law. Mr. Lee’s final hours awaiting his fate were a result of his own lawyers’ choice to assert a non-meritorious objection at the last moment.
Mr. Lee’s lawyers also disregarded the cost to victims’ families of continued delay. Although they note that some members of Mr. Lee’s victims’ families opposed his execution, others did not. Nor did the family members of Wesley Purkey’s victim, Jennifer Long, who were in Terre Haute on Wednesday afternoon. When the District Court again imposed another last-minute stoppage, granting more time for Mr. Purkey’s lawyers to argue (among other things) that he did not understand the reason for his execution, the Justice Department again sought Supreme Court review.
As the hours wore on, Justice Department officials asked Ms. Long’s father if he would prefer to wait for another day. The answer was unequivocal: He would stay as long as it took. As Ms. Long’s stepmother later said, “We just shouldn’t have had to wait this long.” The Supreme Court ultimately authorized the execution just before 3 a.m. In his final statement, Mr. Purkey apologized to “Jennifer’s family” for the pain he had caused, contradicting the claim of his lawyers that he did not understand the reason for his execution.
The third execution, of Dustin Honken, occurred on schedule, but still too late for some of his victims’ families. John Duncan — the father of the victim Lori Duncan and grandfather of her slain daughters, Kandace (age 10) and Amber (age 6) — had urged Mr. Honken’s execution for years. As John Duncan was dying of cancer in 2018, he asked family members to promise they would witness the execution on his behalf. On July 17, they did. “Finally,” they said in a statement, “justice is being done.”
Mr. Lee’s lawyers and other death penalty opponents are entitled to disagree with that sentiment. But if the United States is going to allow capital punishment, a white-supremacist triple murderer would seem the textbook example of a justified case. And if death sentences are going to be imposed, they cannot just be hypothetical; they eventually have to be carried out, or the punishment will lose its deterrent and retributive effects.
Rather than forthrightly opposing the death penalty and attempting to change the law through democratic means, however, Mr. Lee’s lawyers and others have chosen the legal and public-relations equivalent of guerrilla war. They sought to obstruct by any means the administration of sentences that Congress permitted, juries supported and the Supreme Court approved. And when those tactics failed, they accused the Justice Department of “a grave threat to the rule of law,” even though it operated entirely within the law enacted by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court. The American people can decide for themselves which aspects of that process should be considered “shameful.”
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