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Judge blocks what would've been 1st federal execution in 17 years

Judge blocks what would've been 1st federal execution in 17 years
Daniel Lewis Lee was expected to be the first federal death row inmate executed since 2003. File Photo by Paul Buck/EPA

July 10 (UPI) -- A judge in Indiana issued a temporary injunction Friday effectively delaying the U.S. government's efforts to resume federal executions after 17 years.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson issued an order to postpone the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was set to be put to death Monday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

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The Justice Department said it plans to appeal the case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lee, 47, was sentenced to death for his role as an accomplice in the 1996 murders of William Mueller, his wife Nancy Mueller, and his stepdaughter Sarah Powell in Arkansas.

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The injunction comes in response to a lawsuit filed by family members of the victims, including Nancy Mueller's mother Earlene Peterson, sister Kimma Gurel and niece Monica Veillete.

The family filed a motion Tuesday asking for Lee's execution to be postponed due to the coronavirus. They said the pandemic "ravaging the federal prison population" would put them at risk if they attended the execution, especially those family members considered to be medically vulnerable. Peterson must travel from Arkansas, and Gurel and Veillete must travel from Washington to attend the execution.

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Magnus-Stinson said the family was likely to succeed in their argument that the U.S. government didn't make sure they could safely attend the execution.

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Government officials have "produced no evidence to show that their decision to conduct an execution during a pandemic accounted for the victims' family's right to be present," the judge wrote.

Baker Kurrus, an attorney for Nancy Mueller's family, said the three women were grateful for the ruling.

"The family is hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today's ruling, a reversal of which would put them back in the untenable position of choosing between attending the execution at great risk to their health and safety, or forgoing this event they have long wanted to be present for," the statement read.

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"We hope the government finally acts in a way to ease, rather than increase, the burdens of Mrs. Peterson and her family who have already been through an unspeakable tragedy."

Last month, Peterson called on President Donald Trump to commute Lee's sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. She said his death would bring her family more pain.

"We feel Mr. Lee's execution would dishonor the memory of my daughter Nancy Ann and my granddaughter Sarah Elizabeth," she wrote.

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She pointed out that the man who physically killed Sarah -- Chevie Kehoe -- is serving three life sentences and did not receive the death penalty.

Lee's was the first of four federal executions scheduled to take place over the next several weeks. The injunction doesn't affect the others -- Wesley Purkey on Wednesday, Dustin Lee Honken on Friday and Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28.

Earlier Friday, a number of mental health organizations called on the Justice Department to halt Purkey's execution due to his schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease diagnoses. The letter says that because of his illnesses, he lacks "a rational understanding of the basis for his execution," a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

"Irrespective of one's position on the death penalty, it is well established that executing people whose developmental or medical status renders them less than fully able to comprehend the purpose of their punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and does not comport with 'evolving standards of decency,'" the letter said.

Officials from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center signed the letter.

While individual states have carried out executions for the past four decades, federal executions have been on a moratorium -- official or otherwise -- since 2003. That year, the U.S. government put to death Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. for the rape and murder of a fellow soldier, Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.

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Attorney General William Barr ordered the federal government to resume capital punishment in July 2019, 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, but a number of injunctions delayed the dates until this month.

Four of those first five inmates -- Lee, Purkey, Honken and Alfred Bourgeois sued to halt Barr's efforts.

At issue was the Justice Department's plan to institute a uniform lethal injection protocol rather than follow the individual protocols used by each state, which the law requires. Barr proposed using a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than the common three-drug cocktail used in many state executions.

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.

The District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction in April, giving Barr the green light to reschedule the executions. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case last month.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the U.S. government shouldn't execute any of the inmates until courts have held evidentiary hearings on the protocol issue. Additionally, he agreed with Magnus-Stinson, saying that holding executions during the pandemic puts family members, spiritual advisers and media witnesses -- some who will have to travel thousands of miles -- at risk.

"After 17 years without an execution, what has changed that makes it so important to carry them out now, in the midst of a pandemic when, if the executions are lawful, they can be carried out in a responsible way when it is safe to do so?" he told UPI.

"It shows an unconscionable disregard for public health and a dangerous lack of concern about the seriousness of the virus to carry out executions under these conditions."

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