Death Penalty

Judge Delays First Federal Execution in 17 Years Due to Coronavirus Fears

Relatives of the victims say they shouldn’t have to risk infection to attend. A federal judge agreed.


Daniel Lewis Lee is scheduled to be the first federal prisoner executed in 17 years on Monday, but this afternoon a federal judge put a temporary halt to it due to COVID-19 infection fears.

The judge is not concerned that Lee might get infected. Rather, the scheduling of his execution is being challenged by relatives of his victims. They have sued the Department of Justice to temporarily halt the execution because, while they are permitted to attend Lee's execution, they are concerned that they risk coronavirus infection by traveling across the country from where they live to Terre Haute, Indiana, where Lee is incarcerated and will be executed. They argue the federal government cannot guarantee they will not be exposed to COVID-19.

Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a family of three in 1999—William Mueller, Nancy Mueller, and their 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Mueller—and dumping them in an Arkansas bayou. He has been sitting on death row for years because the federal government stopped executing prisoners back in 2003. Attorney General William Barr announced last year that he was restarting federal executions. Lee is scheduled to be the first.

But members of the victims' family actually oppose Lee's execution and want to see him remain in prison instead. The man who allegedly masterminded this crime, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison, and they believe Lee should get the same punishment.

An attempt to get the Supreme Court to intervene in these upcoming planned executions recently failed. But the relatives had another claim they were pushing. Under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, when the federal government executes a prisoner, they must follow the statutory guidelines of the state where the inmate was sentenced to death. And Arkansas law requires that direct relatives of the victims "shall be present" at the execution if they wish to attend, unless the state can prove any of those relatives are a security risk.

Three relatives of the victims—Earlene Peterson (Nancy's mother and Sarah's grandmother), Kimma Gurel (Nancy's sister), and Monica Veillete (Nancy's niece) say they fall under this category, and therefore they must be allowed to attend. But they also say it's dangerous to do so because of the potential COVID-19 infection dangers (Peterson is 81 and has congestive heart failure, putting her in a higher risk category). They asked a federal judge to delay Lee's execution.

This afternoon, Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana agreed. She writes, "In this case, the public's interest in a prompt, orderly execution should give way to their interest in treating Ms. Peterson, Ms. Gurel, and Ms. Veillette with fairness, respect, and dignity." She enjoined the Department of Justice from carrying out Lee's execution Monday and will keep the injunction in place until the government can show that they can execute Lee while still allowing the family to attend safely.

Assuming this injunction holds through Monday, Wesley Ira Purkey is the next federal prisoner set for execution on Wednesday. Purkey's spiritual advisor, a Buddhist priest, is suing for a similar delay because he, too, claims that he is at risk of COVID-19 infection should he attempt to visit Purkey.