WASHINGTON — Hours after the Supreme Court rejected a last-minute legal-challenge on a 5-4 vote, the Justice Department put a man to death for his role in the 1996 murder of a family of 3, the first federal execution in more than 17 years.
The death row prisoner, Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, a former white supremacist who renounced his ties to that movement, was executed by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Bureau of Prisons said. He is the first of three federal inmates scheduled for execution this week.
Lee’s death ended an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment.
The Trump administration announced last summer its intention to resume the federal death penalty and to employ a new procedure to carry it out — using a single drug, pentobarbital — after several botched executions by lethal injection renewed scrutiny of capital punishment.
But up until the final hours before Lee’s death, the government had to fight off legal challenges based on use of the single-drug technique and the complications of carrying out the death penalty during a pandemic.
On Monday, a federal judge had delayed the execution, saying questions about the constitutionality of the lethal injection procedure had not been fully litigated.
The Justice Department immediately appealed the ruling by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the US District Court in Washington DC. In issuing a preliminary injunction against the execution of Lee, Chutkan cited the “extreme pain and needless suffering” that could result from the lethal injection protocol the government planned to use.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned 5-4 ruling early Tuesday said pentobarbital had been used in more than 100 executions “without incident” and had been upheld by the Supreme Court and appeals courts.
Last week, family members of Lee’s victims sued the Justice Department, arguing that traveling to the execution site would put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus. A district court agreed and granted a temporary delay in the execution. Late Sunday, the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The Supreme Court also declined the family members’ petition Tuesday morning.
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