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Judges prevent the Justice Department from resuming federal executions when court battles begin

In an order Monday, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia wrote that she blocked the executions – including three that would take place this week – and said it was necessary to let legal challenges to the government’s lethal injection protocol play out in court.

Those detainees have argued that the protocol is unconstitutional, and Chutkan wrote that “the public interest is not served by the removal of individuals until they have had the opportunity to use the legal process to question the legality of their executions.”


A lawyer for the dead prisoners praised the decision, while the Department of Justice quickly appealed it to both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and the Supreme Court. The department wrote in an application that extensive preparations had already begun and Chutkan’s order served “to distort these plans with a merited ban.”

The DC circuit declined late Monday to go in and let the executions continue.

The Ministry of Justice has defended its plans to resume executions by citing the need to carry out legal death sentences and emphasizing the nature of the crimes and the victims and their loved ones. In recent days, however, the department has fought in court against relatives of the victims in the first case with a planned execution.

Federal officials suspended Daniel Lewis Lee’s lethal injection Monday afternoon at a federal prison in Indiana. Lee and another man were convicted in 1999 of murdering a family of three – including an eight-year-old, Sarah Powell, and her mother Nancy Mueller.

Lee and the other man, Chevie Kehoe, were part of a group that sought to create a white supremacist community in the Pacific, according to court records. They traveled to Arkansas in 1996 and robbed and murdered William Mueller, an arms dealer, as well as his wife and their daughter, and sealed plastic bags over their heads before throwing them in a baou, the records show.

Wesley Purkey, who was also convicted in 2003 of raping and murdering Jennifer Long, a teenage girl, and Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted in 2004 of killing five people, including two young girls, were also scheduled to be executed this week.

In a statement last month planning his executions, Attorney General William P. Barr said: “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes and the families who have been left behind to carry on the penalties imposed by our legal system.”

Some of these family members in Lee’s case have spoken out against his death sentence and the time of his execution in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak.

Three of Nancy Muller’s relatives – including Earlene Peterson, her mother; Kimma Gurel, her sister; and Monica Veillette, her niece, went to court last week to delay Les’ execution.

They said that scheduling it during the pandemic forced them to choose between witnessing it and protecting their health. All three have health problems, they said.

“What is happening now is very illogical,” Gurel said in an interview over the weekend. “They should not carry out these executions during a pandemic and expect us to travel. It is our right to be there and experience this end, no matter what it is. “

The Ministry of Justice wrote in court applications that it took its perspectives “seriously, in accordance with their terrible loss and distinct perspectives” but said it was not necessary to take note of “the availability and travel preference of those involved in the execution when they planned it.”

The department also described efforts it made to protect relatives and other witnesses, including the provision of protective equipment.

A federal judge in Indiana last week blocked Lee’s execution, sides with the relatives in their case, but it was lifted on Sunday by a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th District, which wrote that “they have no statutory or legislative right to participate in the execution. ”The three relatives appealed to the Supreme Court on Monday.

Relatives oppose Lee’s execution and claim it is unfair that he was sentenced to death while Kehoe was sentenced to life in prison.

“We have never advocated for Daniel Lee to be released from prison completely,” Veillette said. “But we have consistently said that we want this opinion to be fair.”

The federal judge who presided over the trial and the chief prosecutor have also spoken out against Lee’s death sentence.and wrote letters years later saying that Kehoe was the leader and Lee his followers. The judge wrote years later that “justice was not served in this specific case, solely with respect to the death penalty imposed on Daniel Lewis Lee.”

But relatives said they still felt guilty about his execution.

“It really is not something I want to look at,” Veillette said. “But I believe in myself when something is done in our family or my name. . . the least I can do is testify of it and be present and have a voice that says, “This is not done in my name.” “

After the Court of Appeal said on Sunday that the execution could continue, Veillette said that she, her mother and grandmother had decided not to participate, given the health risks. She also said that when the decision of the Court of Appeal came down and said that the execution could take place the next day, it was too late for them to travel as originally planned.

The Justice Department’s efforts to restart executions marked a break with national trends in the death penalty, which are largely handled at the state level. The vast majority of dead prisoners are held by states, and almost all modern-day executions have been carried out by government officials.

The Trump administration’s goal of resuming executions has also recently played out against the backdrop of a country grip of both a pandemic and protests against racial justice, much of it focused on law enforcement practices.

Ruth Friedman, a lawyer for Lee, pointed to these demonstrations and said in a statement that “although people across the country are demanding that leaders reconsider crime, punishment and justice, the government is blocking its plans to carry out the first federal executions in 17 years. year. ”

Other court challenges also remain for the executions scheduled to take place this week. Purkey’s execution, which was set for Wednesday, was stopped separately and temporarily by an appeals court, which the Ministry of Justice is challenging in the Supreme Court.

Mental health organizations have called for Purkey to be executed and say he “lives with schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease” and would instead be sentenced to life in prison without trial.

Pastor Seigen Hartkemeyer, a 68-year-old Buddhist priest and spiritual adviser to Purkey, has also gone to court, demanding that the execution be delayed. Hartkemeyer wrote in court applications that because of the coronavirus, his health could be jeopardized if he participated, so he was forced to “decide to risk his own life in order to exercise his religious obligations to be present.”

Mark O’Keefe, a Roman Catholic priest, agreed with that case and made a similar argument, saying he is the spiritual adviser to Honken, who is scheduled to be executed on Friday. O’Keefe has said the government is blaming his practice of religion.

The Justice Department pushed back against their arguments, saying they are not forced to participate in the executions and will be provided with protective gear to carry if they go to jail. It has also compared his potential presence to priests visiting patients with coronavirus who have been hospitalized.

“Any risks he accepts by choosing to participate in Mr. Honken’s execution are the result of Father O’Keefe’s own choice, not government coercion,” the department wrote in response, adding later: “Despite the pandemic, the government must still carry out its important tasks. “

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