© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A correction officer watches over a tower in the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute
By Jonathan Allen
(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge issued an injunction on Monday, stopping the first execution scheduled for 17 years later, to allow legal challenges to continue against the government's protocol on fatal injection.
Judge Tanya Chutkan of the United States District Court in Washington ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to delay four executions that the ministry had planned for July and August pending the court's order.
Within a few months of President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017, efforts were made to resume the death penalty at the federal level. This ended a de facto moratorium that began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, while the federal government faced longstanding legal challenges for fatal injections.
Judge Chutkan has monitored cases of death row inmates who argue that the Justice Department's new one-drug protocol violates various administrative and drug control laws and is unconstitutional.
The Department of Justice had planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Monday, with a lethal injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family, including an 8-year-old child 1996.
Some of Lee's victims' relatives refused to give him the death sentence, while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.
The department had planned two other executions for Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all of whom had been convicted of murdering children.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some lawyers on death row inmates from visiting their clients. At least one employee who was involved in the executions tested positive for COVID-19, the Justice Department said on the weekend.
On Sunday, an appeals court dismissed an argument from some relatives of Lee's victims, who were suing for a delay and feared that participating in his execution could expose them to the corona virus.
FEDERAL VERSIONS RARE
While several convicted inmates are executed every year in Texas, Missouri, and other states, federal executions are rare: from 1963 to 2003, there were only three executions, including the execution of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001.
There are currently 62 people on federal death row in Terre Haute.
Opposition to the death penalty has increased in the U.S., according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, although 54 percent of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder.
When announcing the planned resumption of executions last year, Attorney General William Barr said: "We owe it to the victims and their families to continue the punishment imposed by our judicial system."
A ban by the European Union to sell drugs for execution or torture has resulted in pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to US prison systems.
The Department of Justice spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to manufacture and test the drug of its choice, pentobarbital, to replace the three-drug protocol used in previous executions. Some of the companies involved said they didn't know they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation revealed last week.
As in Texas and other states, the Department of Justice has commissioned a private pharmacy to manufacture the drug.