U.S. judge delays first federal executions in 17 years

TERRE HAUTE, Indiana (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge issued an injunction on Monday delaying what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years, scheduled for later in the day, thwarting at least for now the Trump administration's goal of reviving capital punishment at the federal level.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. district court in Washington ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to delay four executions the department had scheduled for July and August to allow continuation of the condemned men's legal challenges against a new lethal injection protocol announced in 2019.

"The scientific evidence before the court overwhelmingly indicates that the 2019 Protocol is very likely to cause Plaintiffs extreme pain and needless suffering during their executions," Chutkan wrote in her order. She said the inmates were likely to succeed in their challenge to the protocol on the grounds that it breached a constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishments.

The Justice Department told the court it would appeal the injunction.

Her order came down less than seven hours before Daniel Lewis Lee was due to be put to death at 4 p.m. using lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, at the Justice Department's execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Lee was sentenced to death for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family, including an 8-year-old child, in 1996.

"The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol," Shawn Nolan, one of the public defenders representing the death row inmates in their lawsuits, said in a statement.

Efforts to resume capital punishment at the federal level were underway within a few months of President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017, ending a de facto moratorium that began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, due to problems getting execution drugs and while long-running legal challenges to lethal injections played out in federal courts.

The department had scheduled two more executions for later in the week and a fourth in August, of Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all convicted of murdering children.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some of the lawyers of inmates on death row from visiting their clients. At least one employee involved in the executions tested positive for COVID-19, the Justice Department said over the weekend.

FEDERAL EXECUTIONS RARE

While Texas, Missouri and other states execute multiple condemned inmates each year, federal executions are rare: only three have occurred since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003, including the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

There are currently 62 people on federal death row in Terre Haute.

Opposition to the death penalty has grown in the United States, although 54 percent of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

In announcing the planned resumption of executions, Attorney General William Barr said last year: "We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

A European Union ban on selling drugs for use in executions or torture has led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to U.S. prison systems.

The Justice Department spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to make and test its drug of choice, pentobarbital, which replaces the three-drug protocol used in previous executions. Some of the companies involved said they were not aware they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation found last week.

As with Texas and other states, the Justice Department has commissioned a private pharmacy to make the drug.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Peter Cooney and Dan Grebler)

07/13/2020 14:56

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