Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Allows Federal Executions to Proceed

The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

The Supreme Court ruled early Tuesday morning that the Justice Department can resume its first federal executions in 17 years this week, hours after a D.C. judge issued an order temporarily halting the lethal injections.

The unsigned, 5-4 opinion issued around 2 a.m. will allow four scheduled federal executions to proceed as planned and came two hours before the scheduled execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, a former white supremacist who was convicted in Arkansas in 1999 of murdering a family of three. Prosecutors said Lee and another man robbed the family to steal guns that they intended to sell to finance the founding of a white supremacist “Aryan Peoples Republic.”

The authorities were prepared to move forward with Lee’s execution at 4 a.m. EDT on Tuesday after the Supreme Court’s decision, as shown by documents filed in the district court in Washington by Lee’s lawyers, Reuters reported, though the outlet was unable to confirm that Lee’s execution took place.

While U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia said it was necessary to let legal challenges to the government’s lethal-injection protocol play out in court when she issued her order yesterday, less than seven hours before Lee’s scheduled execution, the Supreme Court found that the prisoners on death row had “not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention.” 

“Last-minute stays like that issued this morning should be the extreme exception, not the norm,” the Court said.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor each wrote dissents, which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined.

The death penalty was reinstated in 1988, though only three federal executions have taken place in that time. Attorney General William Bar announced last July that the Justice Department would carry out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row. 

While Barr had originally scheduled five of those executions for last December, Chutkan ordered their delay while lawsuits challenging the government’s lethal-injection protocol played out in court. 

After an appeals court overturned that injunction in April, Barr announced new execution dates for July and August of four inmates, all men convicted of murdering children: Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson.

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