US executes Daniel Lee, first federal execution in 17 years


FILE – In this Oct. 31 1997, file photo, Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. On Tuesday, July 7, 2020, family members of the victims of Lee, who is scheduled to be put to death next week, asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus pandemic puts them at risk if they travel to attend it. (Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP, File)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (News Nation) — The federal government’s first execution in nearly two decades was carried out Tuesday morning, after two overnight decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Daniel Lewis Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. (EDT) by an Indiana coroner, News Nation affiliate WTWO/WAWV reports.

Lee was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

Last-minute legal battles over the rights of the victim’s family to travel during a pandemic and the use of the lethal injection drug pentobarbital delayed the execution, which was originally scheduled for Monday.

Two early morning orders by the Supreme Court allowed the Department of Justice to move forward with the execution at The United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, one of three scheduled for this week.

The majority opinion by the court, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, argued the drug pentobarbital has been used to carry out more than 100 executions, “without incident,” and similar cases have decided the use pentobarbital doesn’t fall within an Eighth Amendment challenge.

“The plaintiffs in this case have not made the showing required to justify last-minute
intervention by a Federal Court. ‘Last-minute stays’ like that issued this morning ‘should be the extreme exception, not the norm,'” the justices argued in the majority opinion written unanimously by the five conservative justices.

Two separate dissenting opinions were filed. The first from Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Given the finality and seriousness of a death sentence, it is particularly important to ensure that the individuals sentenced to death are guilty, that they received full and fair procedures, and that they do not spend excessively long periods of time on death row. Courts must also ensure that executions take place through means that are not inhumane,” Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion.

The two liberal justices argue the court needs to directly look at the question of “whether the death
penalty violates the Constitution.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a separate dissenting opinion with Elena Kagan and Ginsberg, arguing their fellow justices aren’t looking at the problems.

“In doing so, the Court accepts the Government’s artificial claim of urgency to truncate ordinary procedures of judicial review. This sets a dangerous precedent,” Sotomayor wrote. “Yet because of the Court’s rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the Government plans to execute them.”

The majority justices said this issue has already been decided in recent state executions. A similar decision was made last year in a state execution case in South Dakota, News Nation affiliate KELOLAND reports.

“The plaintiffs in this case are all federal prisoners who have been sentenced to death for murdering children. The plaintiffs committed their crimes decades ago and have long exhausted all avenues for direct and collateral review,” the justices wrote Tuesday morning. “This Court has yet to hold that a State’s method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual.”

Scheduled Federal Executions

July 13 Happened on July 14: Daniel Lewis Lee

July 15: Wesley Ira Purkey

July 17: Dustin Lee Honken 

August 28: Keith Dwayne Nelson

The four executions were scheduled in June by Attorney General William Barr.

REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

News Nation affiliate WTWO anchor Dana Winklepleck was selected as a witness to Lee’s execution. She was at the prison most of the day on Monday awaiting the execution. Early Tuesday morning she was called back to the prison and arrived shortly before 4 a.m.

Prior to his execution, Lee had access to social visitors, visited with his spiritual adviser and had been allowed to receive mail, prison officials said.

The witnesses for Lee were expected to include three family members, his lawyers and spiritual adviser.

“You killed an innocent man,” were Lee’s final words, according to Winklepleck.

One of Lee’s public defenders Ruth Friedman said his legal team received no notification of his rescheduled execution.

“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. We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are,” she said in a statement.

The nonprofit research group the Death Penalty Information Center said it appeared to be an “illegal, warrantless execution” because the execution warrant for Lee had expired at midnight.

Representatives of the Department of Justice and the department’s Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Two more executions are scheduled this week, though one, Wesley Ira Purkey, was on hold in a separate legal claim.

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