The Justice Department carried out the first federal execution in 17 years early Tuesday, surmounting a flurry of last-minute legal objections to put to death Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted of killing a family of three in a plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Lee’s attorneys said he sat strapped to a gurney for four hours as they tried to block the execution. The Justice Department ultimately won a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling at 2 a.m. that overturned a lower judge’s stay and allowed the federal government to resume executions.
Witnesses were summoned back to the execution chamber and, after one more legal wrangle, Lee was put to death by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m.
“Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved,” said Attorney General William P. Barr.
Lee’s attorneys said the last-minute rush to the Supreme Court followed by quick execution was unbecoming for the ultimate penalty.
“It is shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste,” Ruth Friedman said in a statement.
Lee was the first of four death row inmates slated for execution. Wesley Ira Purkey had been scheduled for execution Wednesday, though that was put on hold while his attorneys argued that he is too mentally ill to be put to death.
Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people, is scheduled to be executed Friday. Honken’s priest sought to delay the execution by saying he would be put at risk of contracting COVID-19. A federal court in Indiana denied his request.
The Supreme Court’s early morning intervention dealt with the type of drug used in the lethal injection. Injection drugs have been the subject of years of debate. The Trump administration finally approved the use of a single drug, pentobarbital sodium.
In its ruling, the court said in an unsigned opinion that the government followed all procedures and proved the drug is safe enough. The court rejected claims by death penalty opponents that pentobarbital sodium can lead to unnecessary terror or pain.
The court overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, saying decisions about whom to execute and when should be left to the people and their elected representatives.
“In keeping with that responsibility, we vacate the District Court’s preliminary injunction so that the plaintiffs’ executions may proceed as planned,” they wrote.
The court’s four Democrat-appointed justices dissented.
Two said it is time to revisit the concept of the death penalty because it may be too cruel to be carried out in modern America. They pointed to the decadeslong delay between Lee’s conviction and his execution as an additional level of cruelty that might violate the Eighth Amendment.
The other justices said the court should have given more time to decide the specific issues surrounding pentobarbital sodium.
“This sets a dangerous precedent,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, called the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision “bizarre.”
“While I’m disgusted, I can’t say I’m surprised,” she told The Washington Times. “When it comes to the death penalty, it is an issue always shrouded in secrecy, and we are used to the government having little transparency.”
Mr. Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and that the execution brings closure to the victims and communities where the crime occurred.
“The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses,” he said.
Critics speculated that the Justice Department pushed for the executions amid the protests and riots that erupted after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“It was rushed to prove a partisan point,” Ms. Cox said. “It didn’t serve anybody. Family members of the victims were adamantly opposed to Lee’s execution, and then they were not even given the dignity of being able to attend.
“Trump is trying to highlight his law and order position for voters on the right, and the death penalty goes a long way,” she said. “Had it not been for the protests, they still would have carried it out, but they certainly wanted the timing to line up.”
Relatives of the family killed by Lee in 1996 opposed the death penalty and argued that he deserved life in prison. They wanted to witness Lee’s execution to counter claims that it was being carried out on their behalf.
“For us, it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” relative Monica Veillette said.
They asked a federal court to delay the execution, saying they didn’t want Earlene Peterson, 81, the mother of one of Lee’s victims, to travel or have to stand in a witness room in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A federal judge granted their request last week, but that decision was overturned the day before the execution.
Ms. Friedman, the defense attorney, said it was “shameful” that the government carried out the execution during the pandemic.
She also accused the government of relentlessly pursuing Lee’s execution and said he was killed so quickly after the Supreme Court decision that his counsel wasn’t present.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the additional delay was the result of a last-minute court filing by Lee’s attorneys. She said prison officials needed to wait for the federal appellate court to reject their claims.
Lee, a onetime white supremacist, killed a family of three in 1996. It was part of a plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
He professed his innocence just before his execution.
I didn’t do it,” Lee said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.”
His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”
The death penalty has been carried out at the federal level three times since 1963, and all of those were during the George W. Bush administration. The first was Timothy McVeigh, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and executed on June 11, 2001. The most recent was Louis Jones, executed on March 18, 2003. He was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death.
Death row inmates have been challenging the federal execution practice since 2005. After a botched state execution by Oklahoma in 2014, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review capital punishment amid concerns about the drugs used in lethal injections.
Under Mr. Barr, the Justice Department last year completed the review and replaced a three-drug combination with the single, more lethal drug pentobarbital sodium.