April 7 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday lifted an injunction on federal executions, siding with Attorney General William Barr's plan to carry out lethal injections at the federal level.
In a 2-1 vote, the U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its earlier ruling from December, which left in place an injunction by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan.
The Washington, D.C., judge found a problem with the Justice Department's plan to institute a uniform lethal injection protocol rather than follow the individual protocols used by each state. She questioned whether Barr had the legal authority to act at all.
She put in place the injunction pending the trial to answer that question.
Cate Stetson, an attorney for one of the death row inmates who challenged Barr's plan, said the federal government "rushed" its execution protocol in order to carry out death sentences.
"The district court's injunction was aimed at preventing the government from 'short-circuiting legitimate judicial process' and serving the public interest by 'attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,'" she said.
"Without action by the full court, the panel's splintered decision will allow the government to execute prisoners even while serious questions remain unanswered about the legality of the government's execution procedures under federal law."
With the injunction vacated, the case will go back before Chutkan. It will likely go before the Supreme Court again for justices to decide whether Barr has the legal authority to set the federal lethal injection protocol.
Barr ordered the federal government to resume capital punishment in July, 16 years after the last federal execution. He told the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for five death row inmates starting in December 2019.
Barr proposed using a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than the common three-drug cocktail used in many state executions. Chutkan said in her ruling that developing such a uniformed method was "very likely" beyond Barr's authority, and that death row inmates would likely win appeals by arguing the protocol violates federal law because it varies from state law.
Lawyers for all five death row inmates whose execution dates were scheduled last year revived individual lawsuits, with four -- Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken -- banding together under this joint case on the grounds that Barr didn't have the authority to develop the drug protocol. The execution of the fifth inmate, Lezmond Mitchell, was blocked by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October.
Under a 1994 statute, all federal executions must be carried out in a "manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed." Government attorneys had argued the drugs used in the protocol are irrelevant, since the method of execution -- lethal injection -- is the same. Chutkan disagreed.
"Requiring the federal government to follow more than just the state's method of execution is consistent with other sections of the statute and with historical practices," she wrote in her decision. "For all these reasons, this court finds that the [Federal Death Penalty Act] does not authorize the creation of a single implementation procedure for federal executions.
"There is no statute that gives the [Bureau of Prisons] or [Justice Department] the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions."
Chutkan noted the federal government has followed some version of this legal requirement since 1937, and said failure to block the executions will result in "irreparable harm" for at least one of the death row inmates.
In court briefs, the Justice Department argued it would be unreasonable to force the federal government to keep every single drug used by death penalty states to comply with federal law. Two of the nation's most aggressive death penalty states, Texas and Missouri, have already moved to a single-drug protocol because obtaining all three drugs for the procedure has become increasingly difficult.
The last federal execution was that of Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. in March 2003 for the rape and murder of a fellow soldier, Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.
Jones admitted kidnapping the young female recruit at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, but his lawyer sought clemency by arguing Jones suffered behavior-altering brain damage from exposure to nerve gas during the Gulf War that gave him uncontrollable, violent urges.
Jones' was the third federal execution in 40 years.