Supreme Court Rules First Federal Execution In 17 Years Can Proceed

The Supreme Court has ruled that the execution of the first federal death row inmate in 17 years can proceed.

Daniel Lewis Lee had been scheduled to receive a lethal dose of pentobarbital at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana at 4 p.m. EDT on Monday for the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell.

But a court order issued on Monday morning by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan halted Lee's execution and others scheduled to take place this week.

A federal appeals court in Washington refused the Trump administration's plea to step in, leaving the hold in place until the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Lee's execution and others scheduled for this summer "may proceed as planned."

The inmates scheduled for execution argued that the use of pentobarbital constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

But the Supreme Court noted the drug had been used in over 100 executions without incident and had been repeatedly invoked by prisoners as a "less painful and risky alternative" to the lethal injection protocols of other jurisdictions.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court decision said: "It is our responsibility 'to ensure that method-of-execution challenge to lawfully issued sentences are resolved fairly and expeditiously,' so that 'the question of capital punishment' can remain with 'the people of the representatives, not the courts, to resolve.'

"In keeping with that responsibility, we vacate the District Court's preliminary injunction so that the plaintiff's executions may proceed as planned."

The four liberal justices on the court dissented.

"Given the finality and seriousness of a death sentence, it is particularly important to ensure that the individuals sentenced to death are guilty, that they received full and fair procedures, and that they do not spend excessively long periods of time on death row," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion.

"Courts must also ensure that executions take place through means that are not inhumane."

Lee's attorneys have maintained that the execution could not go forward after midnight under federal regulations. It had been scheduled for about 4 a.m. EDT on Tuesday.

The relatives of Lee's victims also called to delay the execution, arguing in a lawsuit filed last week that traveling to witness it would put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.

Earlene Peterson, Nancy Mueller's mother and Sarah's grandmother; Kimma Gurel, who is Nancy Mueller's sister and Sarah's aunt; and Monica Veillette, who is Nancy Mueller's niece and Sarah's cousin, are opposed to Lee's execution, but want to exercise their right to witness it.

They argued in the filing that traveling to the prison in Terre Haute from their homes in Arkansas and Washington puts them in an "untenable position because they cannot exercise their rights as witnesses without putting their own lives in danger."

Their request for a stay was initially granted by a lower court, but overturned by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Two more executions are scheduled this week. Wesley Purkey's execution, set for Wednesday, is on hold in a separate legal claim.

Dustin Lee Honken's execution is scheduled for Friday and Keith Nelson in August.

"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, an attorney for one of the men facing execution, said in a statement to Newsweek.

Nolan also criticized the decision to proceed with federal executions "given that these executions threaten to become COVID-19 super-spreader events."

There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and one inmate there has died.

On Sunday, it was revealed that an employee at the Terre Haute prison involved in the preparations for the upcoming executions had tested positive for coronavirus.

Demonstrators express opposition to the death penalty during a protest near the Federal Correctional Complex on July 13, 2020 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images