U.S. to resume carrying out executions for federal death row inmates

The U.S. Justice Department has scheduled the execution of five death row federal inmates, after Attorney General William Barr announced he has reinstated a two-decades long dormant policy to resume the federal government's use of capital punishment.

Federal government hasn't executed a prisoner since 2003

Attorney General William Barr, shown earlier this month, said in a statement Thursday that the families of victims of federal death penalty sentences deserve to see the punishment carried out. (John Bazemore/The Associated Press)

The U.S. Justice Department has scheduled the execution of five death row federal inmates, after Attorney General William Barr announced he has reinstated a two-decades long dormant policy to resume the federal government's use of capital punishment.

"Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people's representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president," Barr said in a statement.

"The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

The Justice Department said it has scheduled executions for five men who have been convicted of horrific murders and sex crimes.

The inmates are:

  • Daniel Lee, a white supremacist convicted of murdering a family of three, including a child.
  • Lezmond Mitchell, convicted in fatal knife attacks of a grandmother and her granddaughter.
  • Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of rape and murder of a teenage girl.
  • Alfred Bourgeois, found to have sexually molested and killed his young daughter.
  • Dustin Lee Honken, convicted of shooting deaths of five people.

Lee will be the first to be executed, with the date set for Dec. 9.

"Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies," the department said, adding that all five executions will take place at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute in Indiana.

Timothy McVeigh, seen in 1995, was one of the last federal death row inmates to be executed. The Justice Department announced Thursday it will resume carrying out executions. (John Gaps III/The Associated Press)

The federal government hasn't executed a prisoner since 2003, with the last high-profile death penalty carried out two years earlier in the case of Timothy McVeigh, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

At the state level, executions have declined greatly in recent years compared to the 1980s and 1990s.

Currently, 29 states have the death penalty on the books, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but a dozen states have accounted for every execution to take place in the U.S. over the last five years, while 10 other death-penalty states haven't carried out an execution in more than a decade.

There are also deep divisions on the U.S. Supreme Court over the death penalty and how it is implemented.

Some liberal justices have said that capital punishment as currently employed in the United States may run afoul of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They have also raised questions over lethal injection.

But the conservative-majority court, with two justices appointed by Trump, has given little indication of being willing to rule the death penalty unconstitutional.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who sits on the Senate's judiciary committee, condemned Thursday's announcement.

"The federal government should be leading the effort to end this brutal and often cruel punishment, not advocating for its return. It's time we evolve and put this terrible practice behind us," she said in a statement.

Concerns over execution drugs

There are currently 62 federal inmates sentenced to death, a population that has more than doubled since 2003. The list includes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted a deadly bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for increasing use of the death penalty for drug traffickers and mass shooters.

Early on in the administration, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to examine what steps might be required to resume the use of the death penalty, a Justice Department official said.

In March 2018, Sessions also called on federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty when bringing cases against drug dealers and traffickers as part of a strategy to help combat the opioid crisis.

Most recently, in May, the department's Office of Legal Counsel took steps to make it easier for states to carry out executions by declaring that the Food and Drug Administration lacked the power to regulate lethal injection drugs.

That decision will make it easier for states to import such drugs after many pharmaceutical companies cut off supplies in the wake of troubled executions in Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma in recent years.

Since 2010, 14 states have switched to using pentobarbital.

All five of the condemned men named Thursday will be executed by lethal injection using phenobarbital.

With files from CBC News


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