On Tuesday,14th July 2020, the United States government carried out the first federal execution in 17 years by executing a man who had murdered an Arkansas family in an attempt in the 1990s to create a white-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. The execution came, following the victim's family's resistance.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, from Yukon, Oklahoma, died from lethal injection at the Terre Haute federal prison in the state of Indiana.
“I didn't do it," Lee said 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 go forward with the execution (The Bureau of Prisons' first since 2003) attracted criticism from civil rights organizations and Lee's victims' relatives, who had sued for attempting to obstruct it, citing fears about the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics argued the government was generating excessive pressure and using it for political benefit.
“The government has been trying to plough forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.
The developments in the lead-up to the 2020 elections are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform.
Lee's execution followed a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court moved in a 5-4 decision early on Tuesday,14th July 2020, and allowed it to move forward.
On Monday,13th July 2020, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US district court in Washington, DC had postponed four planned federal executions to allow legal challenges to the lethal injection to be used.
Justice Chutkan's order came less than seven hours before execution was scheduled for the former white supremacist Lee, who was convicted along with another man of assassinating a family of three during a robbery intended to help finance the establishment of an "Aryan Peoples Republic."
The prisoners "have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a Federal Court", the Supreme Court said in a ruling released in the early hours of Tuesday,14th July 2020,.
"We vacate the District Court's preliminary injunction so that the ... executions may proceed as planned."
Attorney General William Barr initially scheduled five executions last December but was directed by Justice Chutkan to postpone them while long-running litigation challenging the lethal-injection protocol of the government played out.
Justice Chutkan ruled in staying the executions that using a single drug, pentobarbital, to carry out the executions could cause"extreme pain and needless suffering" and could breach a constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Reverend Sylvester Edwards kneels as other demonstrators carry signs outside a Federal Correctional Complex demonstrating their opposition to the death penalty and Daniel Lewis Lee's execution [Reuters]
Lee was the first federal inmate to be executed in the US since 2003 and the first to resume federal executions since President Donald Trump announced plans.
Just three federal executions have occurred since the 1988 reinstatement of the death penalty.
Lee and another man, Chevie Kehoe, were convicted of the 1996 murders of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, and her eight-year-old daughter in Arkansas in 1999.
Lee, who according to his lawyers had since renounced his white supremacist beliefs, was sentenced to death while Kehoe was sentenced to three life sentences with no possibility of parole.
Earlene Peterson, 81, whose daughter and granddaughter was killed, has campaigned against Lee's death sentence, saying she wants him to be behind bars for the rest of his life.
"It's an easy way out," Peterson told the media. "He should have to live through this. Like I did."
Peterson and families of other victims have filed a lawsuit seeking to postpone the execution, alleging that traveling to Terre Haute to observe Lee's execution due to the coronavirus pandemic was unsafe for them.
The complaint was dismissed by an appeals court on Sunday,12th July 2020, but Baker Kurrus, a family lawyer, said he would take it to the Supreme Court.
But their demand was rejected by the Supreme Court.
The Prisons Bureau said on Sunday,12th July 2020, that a Terre Haute prison staff member had been found positive for COVID-19.
"There's no reason for anybody to be carrying out executions right now because of the pandemic," said Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
More than 1,000 religious leaders from the US urged President Trump to abandon plans to restart federal executions last week, and Dunham threatened the president with "political use of the death penalty."
Only a handful of US states tend to carry out executions, primarily in the conservative South. In 2019, 22 people were killed.
Some of the cases are prosecuted under state law but some of the more extreme offenses are handled by federal courts, including terror threats and hate crimes.