WASHINGTON – The Justice Department filed an emergency motion with a federal appeals court on Saturday seeking to move forward with the first federal execution in nearly two decades.
Daniel Lee, 47, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday at a federal prison in Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
But Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled Friday in Indiana that the execution would be put on hold because of concerns from the family of the victims about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 130,000 people and is ravaging prisons nationwide.
The Justice Department is seeking to immediately overturn that ruling. In the emergency motion to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it argues that the judge’s order “misconstrues both federal and state law and has no basis in equity” and asks the appeals court to permit the government to carry out the execution on Monday afternoon.
“The capital sentence at issue here — imposed for the murder of an eight-year-old and her parents during a robbery to fund a white supremacist movement — has been repeatedly upheld by federal courts, and the inmate’s own efforts to halt its implementation have very recently been rejected by this Court and the Supreme Court,” prosecutors wrote in the filing.
In response, lawyers for the victims’ family said the relatives “need no reminder of the gruesome details of those crimes.”
The Justice Department also argues that while the Bureau of Prisons has taken measures to accommodate the family and implemented additional safety protocols because of the pandemic, the family’s concerns “do not outweigh the public interest in finally carrying out the lawfully imposed sentence in this case.”
The relatives would be traveling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus’ spread is virtually impossible. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.
The family argues it isn’t trying to overturn Lee’s death sentence but instead they “seek to exercise their lawful rights to attend the execution of Lee, so that they can be together at that moment in time as they grieve their losses,” according to the filing. The family hopes there won’t be an execution, ever. They have asked the Justice Department and President Donald Trump not to move forward with the execution and have long asked that he be given a life sentence instead.
The relatives, including Earlene Branch Peterson, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the killing, have argued that their grief is compounded by the push to execute Lee in the middle of a pandemic. Peterson, who is 81 and has not left the county where she lives since February, was told by her doctor she should not travel and should avoid contact with others as much as possible to during the pandemic, the filing said.
“Plaintiffs face the unacceptable choice between exercising their right to witness the execution and risking exposure to a deadly disease,” the lawyers wrote.
Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press this week that he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.
The injunction that was imposed late Friday delays the execution until there is no longer such an emergency. The court order applies only to Lee’s execution and does not halt two other executions that are scheduled for later next week.
The decision to resume executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now.
The federal prisons system has struggled in recent months to stem the exploding coronavirus pandemic behind bars. As of Friday, more than 7,000 federal inmates had tested positive; the Bureau of Prisons said 5,137 of them had recovered. There have also been nearly 100 inmate deaths since late March.