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U.S. government carries out 1st execution for federal crimes in 17 years

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the first federal executions in 17 years could proceed, overturning an injunction blocking them in order to allow legal challenges to the government's lethal-injection protocol to continue.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, died by lethal injection on Tuesday morning

A small group of protesters gathered near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., to show their opposition to the death penalty and execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted in the killing of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out the first federal execution in almost two decades, putting to death a man who killed an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. The execution came over the objection of the victims' family.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, of Yukon, Okla., died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

"I didn't do it," Lee said just before he was executed. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I'm not a murderer.… You're killing an innocent man."

The decision to move forward with the execution — the first by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 — drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee's victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics argued that the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.

A U.S. District Court judge 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.

'Many unanswered questions'

That delay came after an appeals court on Sunday overturned a hold that had been put in place last week after the victims' relatives argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution.

Two other federal executions are scheduled for later this week, although one is on hold in a separate legal claim.

The execution of Lee, who was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. ET, went off after a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early Tuesday in a 5-4 ruling and allowed it to move forward.

One of Lee's lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was "shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic."

"And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste," Friedman said in a statement.

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 offences."

Barr had announced last July that the Justice Department would resume carrying out executions of some of the inmates on federal death row. Of more than 2,000 inmates on death row across the country, 62 were sentenced in federal courts.

Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

Co-defendant received life sentence

But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 strongly opposed that idea and long argued that Lee deserved a sentence of life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that the execution was being done on their behalf.

"For us it is a matter of being there and saying, 'This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,' " relative Monica Veillette said.

A Supreme Court ruling early Tuesday paved the way for the execution of Lee to be carried out. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

They noted that Lee's co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Wash., 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 eight-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Ark., about 120 kilometres northwest of Little Rock.

At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 US 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.

Fewer executions, controversy over drugs used

There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns countrywide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama carried out one in early March.

Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

In 2014, following the problematic state execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.

Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily since the last federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States executed 22 people in 2019, nine of whom were in Texas.

In 1999, the U.S. carried out 98 executions, the most since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s.

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