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US conducts first federal execution in 17 years

United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana. (U.S. Bureau of Prisons photo/Released)
July 14, 2020

The U.S. has conducted its first federal execution in 17 years, administering a lethal injection to a man convicted of torturing and killing an Arkansas family in 1996.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, an inmate at the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana, was given a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 8:07 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. On May 4, 1999, a jury found Lee guilty in the killing of William Frederick Mueller, his wife Nancy Ann Mueller and his 8-year-old stepdaughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, for which he received a death sentence.

Lee’s execution came just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the execution could proceed, making his the first federal execution since 2003.

Prior to his execution, Lee reportedly looked into the window of the media witness room and said, “I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a murderer,” Fox News reported.

“You’re killing an innocent man,” were Lee’s last reported words.

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The decision to proceed with his execution came after several appeals. Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. district court in Washington had issued a preliminary injunction against a series of four executions sought by the Department of Justice in July and August, including Lee’s. Chutkan approved the injunction citing concerns with the lethal injection methods that would be used for the executions.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also overturned an injunction requested by relatives of the slain Arkansas family, which argued for a delay to the execution because coronavirus conditions would pose a health risk preventing them from being able to view the execution. The relatives of the slain family requesting the injunction argued they could not view the execution without risk of contracting the coronavirus as cases have been reported at the federal prison facility.

The relatives have made several appeals since Lee received his sentence, as a means of having his sentence reduced from a death sentence to a life term in prison.

“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 told CBS News.

The relatives have noted a co-defendant in Lee’s case, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence and have argued Lee should receive the same sentence.

In arguing to move forward with the death sentence, U.S. Attorney General William Barr argued that it is the duty of the Department of Justice to carry out the sentences prescribed by the court.

Barr also said the Bureau of Prisons could carry out the execution without posing risks from the coronavirus. Federal prison facilities have added new precautions, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.

Lee’s attorney Ruth Friedman criticized the execution and the DOJ’s actions following the rounds of appeals leading up to the execution.

“Over the four hours it took for this reckless and relentless government to pursue these ends, Daniel Lewis Lee remained strapped to a gurney,” Friedman said. “A mere 31 minutes after a court of appeals lifted the last impediment to his execution at the federal government’s urging, while multiple motions remained pending, and without notice to counsel, he was executed.”

Two more executions are scheduled for this week, for Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday, and Dustin Lee Honken on Friday. A fourth federal execution, for Keith Dwayne Nelson, is scheduled for some time in August.