Court clears way for first federal execution in 17 years to proceed

WASHINGTON – The first federal prisoner in 17 years will be executed on Monday, save for a last-minute stay, after a federal appeals court ruled Sunday that the Justice Department could carry out the execution as planned.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was sentenced to death decades ago for his role in the 1996 murder of a family of three. Relatives of Mr. Lee’s victims had sued the Justice Department, arguing that they were unable to travel safely to witness the execution due to the coronavirus. A federal judge in Indiana, where the execution will take place, suspended the plan on Friday night, but Sunday’s decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit resumed it.

The family plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, which would have to act before 4 p.m. Monday to stop the execution.

The Trump administration announced in July 2019 its campaign to recover the federal death penalty from what had been a de facto moratorium. But legal challenges to the federal government’s proposed enforcement protocol delayed the proceedings. Less than a month ago, the Justice Department renewed that momentum, scheduling four executions this summer, all of prisoners convicted of murdering children. Three, including Mr. Lee, are scheduled to die this week.

Several relatives of Mr. Lee’s victims, including those who filed the lawsuit, have asked the Justice Department to commute his sentence to life in prison. But in the lawsuit filed last week, they argued that their pre-existing conditions, including congestive heart failure and asthma, made traveling hundreds of miles to attend the execution especially risky.

Without anticipating the court’s ruling, two members of the victims’ family missed scheduled flights from Washington state on Sunday morning, when the stay was still in effect, said the family’s attorney, Baker Kurrus. She said it was too difficult for Earlene Branch Peterson, 81, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed by Mr. Lee, to drive hundreds of miles to execution from their Arkansas home.

“It is very distressing to think that the United States government put all its power behind the idea that they need to hurry up and kill Danny Lee even though there has not been an execution in 17 years, although that made the rights of my children illusory. customers”. Mr. Kurrus said. “They are trampling on the rights of crime victims.”

Diane S. Sykes, the chief judge of the appeals court, wrote in a ruling for the appeals panel that the family did not have the protected right to witness Mr. Lee’s execution, but was only allowed to attend.

The decision reversed the temporary injunction, issued Friday by Chief Judge Jane E. Magnus-Stinson of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, appointed by Obama. The Seventh Circuit is among the most conservative courts of appeal in the country, with only two Democratic presidential appointments among its 14 judges. President Trump has already appointed four judges to his bench.

As the coronavirus spread, the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, suspended all visits to the prison, even when the four men on death row learned that their executions had been rescheduled. After the Prisons Office reopened visits from their legal counsel last month, the men’s attorneys feared that visiting their clients could expose them and their loved ones to the coronavirus. Lawyers argued that the pandemic prevented them from adequately defending their clients during a critical time in their cases.

“There is a resurgence of the pandemic,” said Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Mr. Lee and director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project. She added that the Justice Department “said they owe it to the victims, but I suppose they do not owe it to the victims” to guarantee their health.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, participants in Mr. Lee’s execution must wear masks and monitor their temperature.

Spiritual advisers to the other two federal inmates slated to be executed this week have filed complaints similar to those of Ms. Peterson and her family, arguing that pre-existing conditions put them at risk of contracting the virus if they attend. Your demand is pending.

According to a recent filing in the lawsuit, an official from the Bureau of Prisons at Terre Haute Penitentiary tested positive for the coronavirus last week after attending a meeting to plan executions and protests that could occur off-site. It also addressed a problem in the Special Prison Unit, which houses federal prisoners under sentence of death. The office is in the process of searching for contacts, according to the filing, but the staff member did not contact anyone who carried out the executions or planned the transportation and logistics of the victim witnesses.

The bureau did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.