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The Trump Administration Carried Out The First Federal Execution In 17 Years

Death row inmates unsuccessfully tried to pause federal executions while they challenged the Trump administration’s new lethal injection protocol.

Last updated on July 14, 2020, at 8:36 a.m. ET

Posted on July 14, 2020, at 8:27 a.m. ET

Handout / Getty Images

A lethal injection facility is shown before being dismantled at San Quentin State Prison, March 13, 2019.

WASHINGTON — Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection on Tuesday morning, becoming the first death row inmate executed by the federal government since 2003.

Lee’s execution at a federal prison facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, took place after an unsuccessful last-ditch legal effort in recent weeks by Lee’s lawyers and others who backed his effort to delay the procedure.

A federal judge in Washington had issued an order on July 13 blocking the government from carrying out executions. The judge concluded that Lee and other death row inmates who challenged the Trump administration’s new lethal injection protocol were likely to succeed in arguing that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But the execution went ahead on Tuesday after the US Supreme Court reversed the lower court injunction in a 5–4 decision issued shortly after 2 a.m. EDT. According to a pool report from the Associated Press, Lee maintained his innocence in his final statement. He was pronounced dead shortly after 8 a.m. EDT.

“I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a murderer,” he said.

Lee was convicted of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, in 1996; the murders were part of a conspiracy to steal weapons to benefit the Aryan Peoples’ Republic, a white supremacist organization that Lee was a member of at the time, according to court records.

The Supreme Court order that allowed the execution to go forward was an unsigned, "per curiam" order. The majority held that Lee and other death row inmates failed to show they were likely to win on their Eighth Amendment argument, noting that the court had previously upheld the single-drug lethal injection protocol that the Trump administration planned to use. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented from the decision.

Lee's lawyers scrambled in the hours after the Supreme Court order came down to convince other courts to again pause his execution. They asked the federal judge in Washington to issue a new injunction on legal grounds that she hadn't resolved in her previous order, and also petitioned the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which had already rejected one of Lee's attempts to challenge his underlying conviction, to reconsider his case. Those efforts failed to stop the execution from taking place.

The federal government hasn’t carried out an execution since 2003. A group of federal death row inmates has been in court since 2005 challenging the government’s lethal injection process, and that litigation was effectively put on hold in 2011 while former president Barack Obama’s administration considered changes to what was at the time a three-drug protocol.

In July 2019, the President Donald Trump’s Justice Department announced that Attorney General Bill Barr had directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to resume executions using a single-drug protocol involving pentobarbital sodium, a method used by some states that still conduct executions. The department announced that execution dates had been set for five inmates, including Lee. All five men were convicted of murder, and specifically of killing children.

The announcement revived litigation over the lethal injection process in federal district court in Washington, DC. The inmates involved in the case pressed new claims against the Trump administration, arguing that the new protocol violated federal law, that the administration failed to follow the Administrative Procedure Act in adopting the new protocol, and that the proposed single-drug process was barred by the Eighth Amendment.

In November, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan granted an injunction blocking any executions from taking place, finding the inmates were likely to succeed in arguing that the protocol violated the Federal Death Penalty Act because it didn’t match the execution rules and regulations in the states where federal executions would take place.

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit reversed that decision, and the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case, which meant the Justice Department could reschedule the executions.

But the first round of litigation didn’t resolve all of the inmates’ legal arguments, and they renewed their efforts back before Chutkan. On the morning of July 13, hours before Lee was scheduled to be executed, the judge issued a new injunction, this time finding that the inmates were likely to succeed on their Eighth Amendment claim. The Justice Department raced to challenge the order, not only filing an immediate appeal with the DC Circuit, but a petition with the US Supreme Court as well.

In the meantime, Lee and several family members of his victims were each pursuing separate challenges to his execution. The family members, who opposed the death penalty for Lee, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Indiana arguing that they wanted to attend the execution, but could not because it wasn’t safe to travel during the coronavirus pandemic. Lee had argued that he should have more time to press claims that his previous lawyers had been ineffective.

On July 10, the 7th Circuit rejected Lee’s attempt at reviving the legal fight over his underlying criminal case. A federal judge in Indiana sided with the victims’ family members and issued an order delaying Lee’s execution, but the 7th Circuit on July 12 reversed that decision. The Justice Department was preparing to go ahead with Lee’s execution on July 13 when Chutkan issued her order.

Chutkan wrote that based on evidence submitted to the court, the single-drug injection protocol was “very likely to cause Plaintiffs extreme pain and needless suffering” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The inmates had proposed alternatives — adding opioid or anti-anxiety medication as part of the protocol, or even using a firing squad.

The Justice Department scheduled three additional executions for July and August. Wesley Purkey’s execution, which was scheduled for July 15, is on hold while he pursues a challenge to his conviction before the 7th Circuit; he lost before a three-judge panel, but the court gave him time to petition the full appeals court to reconsider. The Justice Department has petitioned the Supreme Court to lift the 7th Circuit’s stay and allow that execution to take place as scheduled.

Purkey’s spiritual adviser, a Zen Buddhist priest, has a separate lawsuit pending in federal court in Indiana arguing the execution should be delayed because it isn’t safe for him to travel during the pandemic.

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