U.S. Supreme Court allows federal executions to proceed

The death chamber, equipped for lethal injection, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., shown in this April 1995 photo. The first man sentenced to death in Vermont in almost 50 years is now on death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. On Tuesday, July 11, 2006, the federal Bureau of Prisons listed Donald Fell as being in transit. By late Wednesday he was listed as being held in Indiana, the site of the federal government's death chamber.(AP Photo/Chuck Robinson, File)

A federal appeals court has ruled that the first federal execution in nearly two decades may proceed as planned on Monday. The ruling overturns a lower court injunction that had put the execution on hold citing COVID-19.

On Sunday, the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court order that had put the execution of 47-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee on hold. Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday at a federal prison in Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. 

His execution had been blocked on Friday by a federal judge after some of the victims’ relatives sued, saying they feared that attending could expose them to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

The government argued that the judge’s order misconstrued the law and asked the appeals court to immediately overturn the ruling. The higher court overturned the injunction, saying no federal statute or regulation gave the victims the right to attend the execution. The court found that the claim from the victims’ family “lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous.”

The Justice Department argued that while the Bureau of Prisons has taken measures to accommodate the family and implemented additional safety protocols because of the pandemic, the family’s concerns “do not outweigh the public interest in finally carrying out the lawfully imposed sentence in this case.”

Executions in the middle of a pandemic

The family said they will appeal the judgment in the Supreme Court. “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,” said Baker Kurrus, the attorney of the victims’ family.

In the court filing on Sunday, the Justice Department said that a staff member involved in the execution had tested positive for COVID-19. But officials stressed that the development wouldn’t affect the planned execution as the staff member had not been in the execution chamber, nor come into contact with the team responsible for the execution.

Lewis Lee’s execution is the first in a series of four executions slated for July and August. Last July, US Attorney General William Barr had said that the Justice Department would move ahead with executions of some of the 62 inmates of federal death row.

Barr had originally scheduled five executions for December 2019, which got delayed due to lawsuits challenging the US government’s protocol for capital punishment through lethal injection.

In June, Barr announced new execution dates in July and August for four men — all accused of killing children.

The decision to resume executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating unnecessary urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now.