The Justice Department carried out its third federal execution in four days, matching the total number the United States government had conducted over the previous three decades.
Officials executed Dustin Lee Honken at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., on July 17, 2020. He was pronounced dead at 4:36 p.m., prison officials told the Washington Post.
Honken was convicted of killing five people, including two young children, and sentenced to death. In 1993, Honken was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges, after which he and his girlfriend kidnapped and murdered a federal witness, the witness’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s daughters, a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old, court records show. Months later, they also murdered another potential witness.
Before the execution began, Honken briefly spoke, according to a pool report from a media witness. He did not address the victims’ relatives bearing witness. His last words were, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me.”
Honken’s lethal injection came on the heels of federal officials carrying out two other executions in Indiana, ending a 17-year hiatus.
The federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted for his role in killing a family of three. Two days later, it executed Wesley Purkey, convicted of raping and murdering 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Honken’s execution appeared to take longer than the previous two, according to the media witness.
Federal executions had been a rarity. In the decades since the federal death penalty statute’s reinstatement in 1988 and then its expansion in 1994, the United States government had carried out three executions — the same number conducted this week.
In 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. Not long after, Juan Raul Garza was executed for murdering three men. And Louis Jones Jr. was executed in 2003 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old Army recruit.
Since then, the federal government has continued to seek and win death sentences, including for high-profile criminals such as the surviving Boston Marathon bomber and the gunman who massacred black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C.
But it had not carried out any executions over that span, with Justice Department officials working to review their lethal-injection procedures — and acknowledging even as they won death sentences that they still did not have the necessary drugs on hand.
This week’s executions also unfolded along an unusually aggressive execution schedule, even before the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted officials to delay some other lethal injections.
The death penalty has declined significantly in recent years, with fewer death sentences and executions. There were 22 executions in 2019, down from 98 in 1999.
Since the last federal execution, several states have moved away from the death penalty, including New Hampshire, which last year became the 21st state to abolish capital punishment.
The Justice Department had initially planned to restart executions last year along a similarly busy timeline. Attorney General William P. Barr announced last summer that it would begin carrying out executions again with a new lethal-injection protocol — using only the drug pentobarbital — and scheduled three executions over five days in December.
But those plans were scuttled by legal challenges to the protocol, which was eventually upheld in court. Then this week, with the scheduled executions looming, they were repeatedly put on hold, then given the green light through a tangled web of legal battles.
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