The Justice Department has approved a new death penalty protocol to carry out executions, officials announced Thursday, saying the move clears the way for the first federal execution since 2003.
The Bureau of Prisons will use a single drug, pentobarbital, for lethal injection, adopting the same protocol used in Texas and at least four other states.
Pentobarbital has been used in at least 200 executions and the Justice Department said its use as an execution drug has been upheld by the Supreme Court, which ruled it does not violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The new policy makes good on President Trump’s stance that the death penalty is an important criminal justice tool, and it fulfills a goal of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who sought to update the federal protocols.
Attorney General William Barr made the final decision to authorize the new protocol, an official said.
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Mr. Barr said in announcing the new move Thursday.
He ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions of five death row inmates who have been convicted of murdering children and the elderly, picking cases that involved heinous crimes and where the criminals have exhausted their appeals.
The executions will take place at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, with the first slated for December.
The last federal execution was in 2003, when Louis Jones was put to death for kidnapping and killing Army soldier Tracie Joy McBride.
In the intervening years execution methods have faced a number of hurdles, including a pressure campaign by activists to deny access to the drugs used in lethal injections.
That’s slowed the pace of executions in the 25 states where executions are still legal and able to take place, and it “complicated and prevented” executions at the federal level, a department official said.
The debate has also raged at the Supreme Court, where the justices regularly spar over the speed and method of executions.
Democrats and anti-execution activists blasted Mr. Barr’s announcement, and legal experts said they expect lawsuits will ensue.
“Under no circumstances should the Justice Department be allowed to rush through executions,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sen. Cory A. Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who’s competing for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, called Mr. Barr’s move “disturbing” and said capital punishment “seeks to satisfy a desire for vengeance and retribution.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said innocent people have been executed and the penalty is imposed unevenly, with racial or ethnic minorities being sent to death row at higher rates than white Americans.
“The federal government should be leading the effort to end this brutal and often cruel punishment, not advocating for its return. It’s time we evolve and put this terrible practice behind us,” she said.
Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, a law professor at City University of New York, said the Trump administration’s move was political.
He said the 16-year lapse in federal executions was a sign of the problems associated with capital punishment, including botched executions.
“During the time between the last federal execution and now, nine states have abolished the death penalty and four others have imposed moratoria on executions. Seven months into this year, only five states have executed anyone,” he said.
The federal government carried out 37 executions between 1927 and 2003, and there are about 60 inmates currently on federal death row.
Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who murdered a family of three, is the first of the five new executions scheduled. His date is set for Dec. 9.
Lezmond Mitchell, who killed a grandmother and her 9-year-old granddaughter, is next on Dec. 11. Two days after Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and murdered a teenage girl, will be executed.
The executions will continue into 2020 with Alfred Bourgeois, who molested and killed his toddler daughter, scheduled for Jan. 13. Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and killed five people, will be executed two days later.