1st fed­eral ex­e­cu­tion held in 17 years

Lee put to death de­spite se­ries of le­gal chal­lenges

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Tim Evans In­di­anapo­lis Star USA TODAY NET­WORK

The fed­eral govern­ment car­ried out its first ex­e­cu­tion in 17 years early Tues­day when Daniel Lewis Lee, con­victed in the 1996 slay­ing of an Arkansas fam­ily, was put to death by lethal in­jec­tion at the U.S. Pen­i­ten­tiary in Terre Haute, In­di­ana.

Lee, a once-avowed white su­prem­a­cist, was pro­nounced dead at 8:07 a.m., fol­low­ing a pro­tracted le­gal fight that de­layed his ex­e­cu­tion by more than 16 hours.

“You’re killing an in­no­cent man,” Lee said be­fore he died.

Lee’s ex­e­cu­tion had been sched­uled for 4 p.m. Mon­day, but a se­ries of le­gal chal­lenges de­layed the sen­tence. A 5-4 Supreme Court de­ci­sion in the early hours of the morn­ing Tues­day ul­ti­mately cleared the way for Lee’s lethal in­jec­tion and the sched­uled ex­e­cu­tions of three other in­mates. Two are sched­uled to pro­ceed this week and an­other in Au­gust.

Lee’s at­tor­ney, Ruth Friedman, de­nounced the govern­ment’s ac­tion as “reck­less and re­lent­less,” say­ing that her client re­mained strapped to the gur­ney for hours as the last le­gal chal­lenges played out over night.

“It is shame­ful that the govern­ment saw fit to carry out this ex­e­cu­tion dur­ing a pan­demic,” Friedman said. “It is shame­ful that the govern­ment saw fit to carry out this ex­e­cu­tion when ... the judges in his case and even the fam­ily of his vic­tims urged against it. And it is be­yond shame­ful that the govern­ment, in the end, car­ried out this ex­e­cu­tion in haste, in the mid­dle of the night, while the coun­try was sleep­ing.”

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 of­fenses,” Barr said in a writ­ten state­ment.

In­side the Terre Haute ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber early Tues­day, the cur­tains were rolled back from four wit­ness room win­dows at 7:46 a.m., to re­veal Lee strapped to the gur­ney with his arms out to his sides and two IV lines run­ning from a port in the wall be­hind him.

Asked if he wanted to make a fi­nal state­ment, Lee was de­fi­ant, as­sert­ing his in­no­cence and crit­i­ciz­ing the court sys­tem for ig­nor­ing DNA ev­i­dence.

“I bear no re­spon­si­bil­ity for the deaths of the Mueller fam­ily,” he said, re­fer­ring to vic­tims Wil­liam Mueller, his wife Nancy and her 8-year-old daugh­ter, Sarah. He claimed that he and code­fen­dant, Che­vie Ke­hoe, were in an­other part of the coun­try at the time of the mur­ders.

It took two or three min­utes af­ter the lethal drug was ad­min­is­tered for Lee to die. He didn’t ap­pear to be suf­fer­ing. His lips moved like he was blow­ing bub­bles, but noth­ing came out. At one point he raised his head slightly, then put it back down.

He ap­peared com­pletely still at 8:02 a.m., but re­mained on the table for an­other five min­utes be­fore he was pro­nounced dead.

Lee and Ke­hoe tar­geted the Mueller fam­ily as part of a botched ef­fort to fund a white su­prem­a­cist en­clave in the Pa­cific North­west. Af­ter rob­bing and shoot­ing the vic­tims with a stun gun, the killers cov­ered the vic­tims’ heads with plas­tic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each vic­tim with rocks, and threw the fam­ily of three into the Illi­nois Bayou in Arkansas.

Un­til the Supreme Court acted early Tues­day, the ap­peals court had de­nied the govern­ment’s re­quest to lift the stay or­dered by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who con­cluded that four in­mates, in­clud­ing Lee, had not ex­hausted their chal­lenges to the govern­ment’s ex­e­cu­tion pro­to­col, which they claimed risked in­flict­ing “se­vere pain.”

The judge’s rul­ing touched off a le­gal scram­ble that lasted deep into the night and early morn­ing.

Chutkan said that the fed­eral govern­ment’s new method of lethal in­jec­tion, us­ing the sin­gle drug pen­to­bar­bi­tal, had pro­duced ev­i­dence of se­vere breath­ing prob­lems. Chutkan went on to say that the con­demned pris­on­ers had iden­ti­fied other al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing a mul­tidrug mix­ture or the rarely used fir­ing squad.

Chutkan’s rul­ing was fol­lowed by a flurry of Supreme Court fil­ings in which the govern­ment and ad­vo­cates for Lee and the other in­mates con­tin­ued their le­gal bat­tle, even as Lee’s sched­uled 4 p.m. ex­e­cu­tion time lapsed with­out ac­tion.

“Hours be­fore the first ex­e­cu­tion was set to take place, the District Court pre­lim­i­nar­ily en­joined all four ex­e­cu­tions on the ground that the use of pen­to­bar­bi­tal likely con­sti­tutes cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment pro­hib­ited by the Eighth Amend­ment,” Supreme Court ruled Tues­day, adding that va­cat­ing the in­junc­tion is “ap­pro­pri­ate” be­cause the in­mates’ claim was not likely to suc­ceed as it faced an “ex­ceed­ingly high bar.”

The fil­ings raised a range of ques­tions, from the threat posed by coro­n­avirus to wit­nesses and con­tin­u­ing dis­putes re­lated to the ex­e­cu­tion pro­to­col to a claim that Lee’s trial lawyers pro­vided in­ef­fec­tive as­sis­tance.

Fri­day, an In­di­ana fed­eral judge blocked Lee’s ex­e­cu­tion, cit­ing the threat posed by the resur­gent coro­n­avirus. U.S. District Judge Jane Mag­nusStin­son acted on a le­gal chal­lenge brought by fam­ily mem­bers of the vic­tims who as­serted that the pan­demic posed an un­rea­son­able health risk to them as prospec­tive wit­nesses.

An ap­peals court re­versed that de­ci­sion Sun­day night, con­clud­ing that the chal­lenge “lacks any ar­guable le­gal ba­sis and is there­fore friv­o­lous.”

Lawyers for Ear­lene Peter­son, 81, and other fam­ily mem­bers not only cited the health risks in­volv­ing their planned travel to In­di­ana but claimed that fed­eral prison of­fi­cials could not pro­vide ad­e­quate as­sur­ances once they ar­rived at the prison com­plex.

The fam­ily had planned to at­tend Lee’s ex­e­cu­tion, even though they were op­posed to his death sen­tence.

DAN PIERCE/THE COURIER VIA AP FILE

Daniel Lewis Lee, seen in 1997, was put to death by lethal in­jec­tion early Tues­day in the first fed­eral ex­e­cu­tion in 17 years.

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