UPDATE: Judge delays federal executions hours before convicted child killer Daniel Lee scheduled to die by lethal injection

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UPDATE: A U.S. district judge on Monday ordered a new delay in federal executions, hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out at a federal prison in Indiana. The administration is certain to ask a higher court to allow the executions to move forward.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said there are still legal issues to resolve and that “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process.” The executions, pushed by the Trump administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — A federal appeals court has ruled that the first federal execution in nearly two decades can proceed as scheduled on Monday.

The ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a lower court order that had put the execution of 47-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee on hold because of coronavirus concerns. The injunction by an Indiana judge put Lee’s execution on hold until there was no longer a health emergency. The Justice Department argued that the judge’s order misconstrued the law and asked the appeals court to immediately overturn the ruling, which the appeals court did saying it lacked legal basis.

Several say holding federal executions during a pandemic is heartless and inhumane for those involved in the executions.

“The idea that we’re about to execute three people in a week is just about as callous as I can imagine,” said Federal Public Defender Monica Foster. “It shows no regard for the people who have to carry out these executions.”

“Since it’s been 17 years, all the people who have been on death row have not had the need to go to the courts and litigate new factors,” explains Federal Defense Attorney John Tompkins. “There are almost certainly new factors that have developed over the last 17 years that they need a fresh opportunity to present to the courts to determine if it’s appropriate to stay these executions. I will guarantee you there are teams of federal defenders who are looking for any legitimate reason to stay the execution and litigate the new factors.”

Lee is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday at a federal prison in Terre Haute. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

The family of the victims have been fighting for years against Lee’s death sentence, saying they’d rather he be given a life sentence instead.

The family says watching Lee be put to death is not justice for them.

“They are not doing this for us because to me, it’s heartbreaking, it’s disgraceful and I know my daughter would be very, very hurt to do this,” said Earlene Peterson, Nancy Powell’s mother. 

Lee will be the first of four set to be executed this year. Two others, in addition to Lee, were set to be executed this week. Those inmates are Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken.

Purkey was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday. He was convicted in 2003 in Kansas for violently murdering a 16-year-old girl and an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio in 1998. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has delayed his execution, but that could change in the coming days.

Honken is still scheduled to be executed on Friday. He was convicted of shooting and killing five people, including two young girls back in Iowa back in the 90s.

Keith Nelson is scheduled to be executed on August 28. In 2001, he pled guilty to kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl in Texas in 1999.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said a staff member who was helping preparation of the executions has tested positive for the coronavirus. It says that staffer has not come in contact with anyone handling the execution of Lee today.

The ACLU also responded directly to this in a tweet saying, “Hundreds of people will be exposed if this week’s federal executions are allowed to go forward. This willingness to risk lives is indefensible.”

Lee’s execution is scheduled for today at 4 p.m. in Terre Haute.

Below is a statement from the lawyer of the family of Lee’s victims:

“The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety. Eighty-one year old Earlene Branch Peterson, the mother and grandmother of the victims, along with Ms. Peterson’s surviving daughter and granddaughter, wanted to attend the execution and had planned to be there when it was scheduled for December 2019. Because the Government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these three women would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time. They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal.  My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible.”

-Baker Kurrus, attorney for Earlene Branch Peterson, Kimma Gurel and Monica Veillette

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