On the morning of July 14, 2020, the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution since 2003, following a series of court battles and a Supreme Court order, released shortly after 2 a.m., clearing the way for the lethal injection to take place, reported the Washington Post.
Federal officials executed Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, who was convicted in 1999 of killing a family of three, at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. Tuesday, the Bureau of Prisons said.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said when asked if he wanted to make a final statement, according to the pool report. His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”
Attorney General William P. Barr had said recently that officials “owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind.” Although he defied the family Lee's victims who wanted the execution postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
Although the death penalty has been in decline nationwide for years, with executions and death sentences down significantly, the Justice Department has publicly pushed against that trend for nearly a year. The department has argued in court and in public statements that it needed to carry out lawful sentences, citing the gravity of the crimes involved.
Last year, the department laid out a new lethal injection protocol — using one drug, pentobarbital — and said it would begin carrying out executions, leading to extended legal challenges.
Lee had challenged his execution on his own and along with other death-row inmates. His execution was also opposed by some relatives of his victims, who argued against his death sentence in the case and sought to stop his lethal injection from taking place amid the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, Lee’s lethal injection — originally scheduled for 4 p.m. that afternoon — was left on hold following a judge’s order that he and other death-row inmates could pursue their court cases arguing that the new lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional.
An appeals court said late Monday that it would not let the executions take place as planned, but a divided Supreme Court weighed in overnight saying they could proceed.
In an unsigned 5-4 order, the court’s conservative justices said the prisoners on death row had “not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention.”
“It is our responsibility to ensure that method-of-execution challenges to lawfully issued sentences are resolved fairly and expeditiously, so that the question of capital punishment can remain with the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve,” said the opinion, which quoted court precedents.
Although the author is unclear, the opinion was the work of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The court’s four liberal justices wrote two dissents. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, said that the court was “hastily” ending the inmates’ challenges and that as a result, there would “be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges” they brought.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Ginsburg, reiterated his view that the court should examine whether the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.
Media witnesses at Lee’s execution on Tuesday morning saw him strapped to a gurney and with an IV in his left arm and both arms restrained, according to the pool report. When the lethal drug was being injected, his breathing appeared to become labored, his chest eventually stopped moving and his lips appeared to turn blue.
Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, decried the government’s decision to execute him during the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” she said in a statement. “We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are.”
Barr said that Lee had “finally faced the justice he deserved” on Tuesday morning.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Even after the Supreme Court’s order, uncertainty still lingered for hours in the case. Friedman said Lee “remained strapped to a gurney” for the four hours leading up to his execution as another legal dispute played out. She said another stay was still in place.
The Justice Department said Lee would have been executed at 4 a.m., but attributed the four-hour delay that followed to his attorneys contesting whether the execution could proceed. Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman, called it “a last-minute procedural claim” in a statement.
Lee and another man were convicted of murdering three people, including Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
He and this other man, Chevie Kehoe, were part of a group intending to create a white supremacist community in the Pacific Northwest, and they traveled to Arkansas in 1996, where they robbed and murdered William Mueller, a firearms dealer, along with his wife and the child, court records show. The men placed plastic bags over their heads and threw them into a bayou, the records show.
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