The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out the first federal execution in almost two decades.

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The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out the first federal execution in almost two decades.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
He was convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest, and was executed over the objections of the family members of the victims.
Two other federal executions are scheduled for later this week, though one remains on hold in a separate legal claim.

The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal delays, reviving the debate over capital punishment during a time of widespread social unrest. And the Trump administration’s determination to proceed with executions added a new chapter to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Just before he died at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, Lee, professed his innocence.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.” said Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

The government is scheduled to execute two more men this week, including Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday for the killing of a Kansas City teenager in 1998. But legal experts say the 68-year-old Purkey, who suffers from dementia, has a greater chance of avoiding that fate because of his mental state.

The decision by the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with executions — the first since 2003 — has drawn scrutiny from civil rights groups and the wider public. Relatives of Lee’s victims sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

Critics argued the government was creating a manufactured urgency for political gain. One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was “beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste.”

But Attorney General William Barr said, “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”

Barr had said earlier that the Justice Department had a duty to carry out the sentences, partly to provide closure to the victims’ families and others in the communities where the killings happened.

However, relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 argued he deserved life in prison rather than execution. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf but said concern about the coronavirus kept them away.

Lee’s lawyers tried multiple appeals to halt the execution, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 early Tuesday that it could move forward. He died at 8:07 a.m. EDT.

The vitims’ relatives noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organization, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock.

At a 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.

A U.S. District Court judge had put a hold on Lee’s execution on Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it.

On Tuesday morning, Lee had a pulse oximeter on a finger of his left hand, to monitor his oxygen level, and his arms, which had tattoos, were in black restraints, IV tubes coming through a metal panel in the wall.

He breathed heavily before the drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. As the drug was being administered, he raised his head to look around. In a few moments, his chest was no longer moving.

Lee was in the execution chamber with two Bureau of Prisons officials, a U.S. marshal and his spiritual adviser, described by a prisons spokesperson as an “Appalachian pagan minister.” They and Lee didn’t wear masks.

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