Federal Execution Planner Tests Positive for Coronavirus As Family of Victim Urge Postponement

A prison employee involved in the preparation for this week's planned federal executions at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, has tested positive for coronavirus.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was aware that a staff member went into self-quarantine on July 8 after learning he had been exposed to COVID-19. However, they didn't alert the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana until Sunday, according to court documents obtained by Newsweek.

On Monday, the federal government is set to carry out the first execution in almost 20 years. Daniel Lewis Lee is scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 4 p.m. for the 1996 killing of an Arkansas family despite the objections of the family members of his victims, who have called for his execution to be delayed because traveling to witness it would put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.

In a declaration to the court on Sunday, Rick Winter, the regional counsel for the BOP's North Central Region, said the staff member learned on the morning of July 8 that "individuals with whom he visited the prior weekend tested positive for COVID-19."

The staff member "immediately" left work when he found out, Winter said in the filing, and entered self-quarantine. On Saturday evening, the staff member informed the BOP that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

"Between the staff member's potential exposure and his departure on July 8, he, among other things, attended the law enforcement meeting with outside law enforcement in preparation for the scheduled executions; attended a meeting regarding the handling of demonstrators at the scheduled executions; and attended to an issue at the [Special Confinement Unit]," Winter said.

He said that the staff member "did not wear a mask at all times during this period."

Terre Haute
A sign warns away trespassers at the Federal Correctional Complex Terre Haute on July 25, 2019 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images

He added that the staff member did not come into contact with the BOP execution protocol team, which arrived at the prison after he left, and does not recall coming into contact with any members of the Crisis Support Team, who are involved in transporting witnesses and logistics.

Winter also said the staff member didn't visit the execution facility or the adjacent command center and does not recall being in the witness staging area or any of the vehicles that will transport witnesses to the executions.

He added that the BOP is working to determine who the staff member had been in contact with.

"For the duration of the execution or until a negative test is obtained, BOP will ensure that those staff members identified as having had contact with the infected staff member do not have contact with the inmates scheduled for execution, ministers of record, witnesses of the execution, attorneys, or press," Winter added.

Officials will continue to perform mitigation measures such as temperature checks and symptom screenings of individuals arriving at the Terre Haute prison, as well as disinfecting all areas that ministers, witnesses, attorneys and journalists will visit.

The decision to proceed with executions while a global pandemic is ravaging prisons across the country has attracted criticism.

Dr. Joe Goldenson, a medical professional with 33 years of experience in a correctional setting, said in a statement provided to Newsweek that it "confirms the worst case scenario."

He said: "The new Winter declaration confirms the worst case scenario: a known exposure from an infected staff person who has been in contact with other staff involved in carrying out the executions and who has been in the housing unit with the individuals scheduled for execution."

Goldenson said the infected employee "could have infected other staff members who were in meetings or enclosed, indoor spaces with him and who are now pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic."

He said: "These individuals may remain pre-symptomatic for between 2 and 14 days, or could remain asymptomatic, but contagious, for the duration of the infection.

"In order to address this known exposure, the Government needs to identify all individuals who were exposed—through meetings or indoor settings—to the infected person and place all of those individuals on a 14-day quarantine. This would include at least all of those BOP staff and law enforcement who attended the 'law enforcement meeting' to prepare for the executions, all BOP staff and law enforcement who attended 'the meeting regarding the handling of demonstrators,' and all BOP staff and all prisoners in the SCU who had contact with or shared airspace with the infected staff member when he "attended to an issue at the SCU."

It comes after the relatives of Lee's victims filed a lawsuit last week seeking to block his execution until the pandemic "abates sufficiently so as to allow for safe travel and indoor gathering or there is an effective vaccine."

Earlene Peterson, 81, Kimma Gurel, 61, and Monica Veillette, 43, have said they oppose Lee's execution, but would wish to exercise their right to witness it.

They argued that traveling from their homes in Arkansas and Washington to Indiana puts them at risk as they are all medically vulnerable.

A temporary injection was put in place by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Friday, but that has now been lifted by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In a statement to Newsweek, Baker Kurrus, an attorney representing the victims' family, said: "The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee's execution and their own health and safety.

"Eighty-one-year-old Earlene Branch Peterson, the mother and grandmother of the victims, along with Ms. Peterson's surviving daughter and granddaughter, wanted to attend the execution and had planned to be there when it was scheduled for December 2019.

"Because the Government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these three women would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time.

"They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal. My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible."

Meanwhile, a court has temporarily stayed the federal execution of Wesley Purkey, which had been set for Wednesday.

Two other federal inmates, Dustin Lee Honken and Keith Nelson, are scheduled to be executed this summer. Honken's execution is set for Friday, while Nelson is due to be put to death on August 28.

"We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Attorney General William Barr said in a statement in June after directing the BOP to schedule the executions of the four federal death row inmates.

According to the BOP, 2,938 federal inmates and 242 prison staff are currently positive for COVID-19 nationwide. Another 5,140 inmates and 615 staff have recovered.

Ninety-four inmates—including one at the Terre Haute prison—and one staff member have died from COVID-19.

The BOP and the attorney general's office has been contacted for additional comment.

This infographic, provided by Statista, shows the surge of COVID-19 cases across U.S. states as of July 12.

The surge of COVID-19 cases across U.S. states. Statista

Correction 7/13/20, 10 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the name Rick Winter.

This article was updated with a statement from Dr. Joe Goldenson.