Judge blocks first federal execution in US since 2003

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A US federal judge issued an injunction on Monday stopping what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years, scheduled for later in the day, to allow the continuation of legal challenges against the government’s lethal-injection protocol.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US district court in Washington ordered the US Department of Justice to delay four executions the department had scheduled for July and August until further order of the court.

Efforts to resume capital punishment at the federal level were under way within a few months of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, ending a de facto moratorium that began under Barack Obama while long-running legal challenges to lethal injections played out in federal courts.

Judge Chutkan has been overseeing cases brought by inmates on death row who argue that the DoJ’s new one-drug protocol breaks various administrative and drug-control laws and is unconstitutional.

“The scientific evidence before the court overwhelmingly indicates that the 2019 Protocol is very likely to cause Plaintiffs extreme pain and needless suffering during their executions,” she wrote on Monday, adding that the inmates were likely to succeed in their challenge to the protocol on the grounds that it breached a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments.

The justice department told the court it would appeal against the injunction.

The US government planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee on Monday in Terre Haute, Indiana, using lethal injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family, including an eight-year-old child, in 1996.

“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” Shawn Nolan, one of the public defenders representing the death row inmates in their lawsuits, said in a statement.

Some relatives of Lee’s victims opposed him receiving the death sentence while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.

The department had scheduled two more executions for later in the week and a fourth in August, of Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all convicted of murdering children.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some of the lawyers of inmates on death row from visiting their clients. At least one employee involved in the executions tested positive for Covid-19, the DoJ said over the weekend.

On Sunday, an appeals court rejected an argument by some relatives of Lee’s victims, who sued for a delay saying they feared that attending his execution could expose them to the coronavirus.

While Texas, Missouri and other states execute multiple condemned inmates each year, federal executions are rare: only three have occurred since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003, including the 2001 execution of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Sixty-two people are currently on federal death row in Terre Haute.

Opposition to the death penalty has grown in the US, although 54% of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

In announcing the planned resumption of executions, the attorney general, William Barr, said last year: “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

A European Union ban on selling drugs for use in executions or torture has led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to US prison systems.

The justice department spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to make and test its drug of choice, pentobarbital, which replaces the three-drug protocol used in previous executions. Some of the companies involved said they were not aware they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation found last week.

As with Texas and other states, the justice department has commissioned a private pharmacy to make the drug.