Death Penalty

Justice Department Tangles with Judges Over First Federal Execution in 17 Years

A court delay on Friday was lifted over the weekend, only to be reinstated Monday for different reasons.


At 4 p.m. Eastern Time today, Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection for the 1996 murder of a family of three. His would be the first federal execution since 2003, but wrangling between the Justice Department and the courts has put the scheduling in doubt.

On Friday, a federal judge in Indiana issued a temporary injunction stopping Lee's execution. She was responding to a lawsuit filed by relatives of Lee's victims, who said they wanted to attend the execution but were afraid to travel due to fears of COVID-19 infection. They asked the court to delay the event, arguing that under the law they're entitled to attend and that if it's too dangerous for them to make the trip to Terre Haute, Indiana, where Lee is incarcerated, execution should be delayed. The judge agreed.

On Sunday, after an emergency appeal by the Department of Justice, a panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit lifted the injunction. Chief Circuit Judge Diane Sykes wrote that the scheduling of an execution date is itself not judicially reviewable and that the relatives of Lee's victims do not, in fact, have a statutory or regulatory "right" to attend the execution under the Federal Death Penalty Act. The execution was back on.

But this morning, a U.S. district judge ordered a new delay—this one affecting not just Lee's execution but all four federal executions scheduled in July and August. This new injunction, by Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court of D.C., centers on the method of execution, lethal injection with the drug pentobarbital. The drug induces cardiac arrest, but has a troubled reputation for taking too long to work, leaving death row inmates feeling "searing, burning" pain in their veins while it takes effect. Inmates have been suing to try to stop the drug from being used for lethal injections. Lee and the three other federal defendants facing execution have asked the court to stop the execution while they continue challenging this injection protocol as a violation of their Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Chutkan's decision today agrees that there's "substantial risk of serious pain" under the current execution protocols and notes that the Department of Justice could implement additional drugs to suppress pain or use other mechanisms entirely to execute the inmates, such as a firing squad.

The Justice Department immediately appealed Chutkan's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and so the execution could end up still happening on time today.

This sudden rush to execute a pack of federal inmates comes under the orders of Attorney General William Barr. The federal government stopped executing prisoners back in 2003, one of the last being Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001. But last summer Barr announced he was restarting federal executions, and the Bureau of Prisons implemented new protocols. The Justice Department specifically selected federal death row inmates convicted of killing children in order to kick off its return. Barr wrote at the time that the Justice Department "owe[s] it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

In Lee's case, though, the family of the victims do not, in fact, want Lee executed and have been very vocal about trying to get it stopped. Lee, as a member of a white supremacist group, killed a couple and their 8-year-old daughter; he was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to death. But he was believed to have been acting on the orders of another man who was sentenced to life in prison. The relatives of the murdered family want Lee, like the man who allegedly masterminded the crime, to remain in prison and not be executed.

This post will be updated should Lee actually be executed this afternoon. But for now, his death has been delayed.

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  1. Perhaps Lee could be used for vaccine testing.

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  2. insert standard opposition to state-killing here.

    1. Sure as I have many other times.

      Never give the state the power of execution.

  3. Trump is on a murder spree lately.

  4. This Barr sounds like a cafeteria Catholic (of the Opus Dei strain).

    1. You’re so inferior. Hilariously so.

      We laugh at you. Everyone does.

      1. You get to laugh, whine, whimper, rant, and cry.

        But you will continue to comply with my preferences, because I have won the culture war and you have lost.

        So open wider, clinger. If you can laugh while having all of this progress shoved down your bigoted, anti-social throat, be my guest.

        1. You’re going to die.

          Your kind have pushed too far. Your time will come relatively soon, and I look forward to the day you are brutally slaughtered, most li,Eli by your own kind. Who are unable to control themselves and often end up turning on their own.

          And I ‘comply’ with nothing coming from a progtard. A directive from someone like you should always be met by a backhanded slap. So you and yours may learn your place.

  5. This is fucking ridiculous. The man murdered a family: Mother, Father, and Daughter. Time for this asshole to meet his Maker, and get sent to an especially warm place.

    I don’t care if he suffers while he dies. In fact, I hope it is agonizing.

    1. Get an education, clinger. Start with standard English, focusing on capitalization. Perhaps work on developing some character, too.

      1. Why do you always smell like cat piss? Take a bath, you filthy shitheel.

        1. Arty is with the murderers. Typical progtard.

    2. So the social purpose for which you think our federal government should execute people is… you get a boner from seeing bad men die? Is that truly important enough to outweigh the objections to the practice? ‘Murica?

      1. Why should we keep this vermin alive? So he can kill again in prison?

        1. We should keep him alive because there are still people who refer to other human beings as vermin.

          1. A nonsensical response that in no way answers my question. Typical Tony.

            1. I think the question is why should we kill them, not why shouldn’t we. Your answer is that they might kill prisoners. Okay. But to paraphrase President Muffley, you can’t kill here, this is death row!

    3. From the description I’ve heard, even if things don’t go quite according to plan, his execution is unlikely to be as unpleasant as some medical procedures I’ve been through. (The last thing you want to hear from your doctor is, “We’ve closed the door, it’s OK to scream.”) So, while I certainly wouldn’t advocate going out of the way to make it hurt, I’m not impressed with the argument here.

      But I suppose judges can’t just rule against executions on the basis that they don’t like them, they need an excuse.

  6. Go down to your local welding store, pick up a canister of nitrogen, and strap the guy in. Problem solved. Virtually instant unconsciousness, followed by death. No drugs necessary.

  7. Sodium Pentobarbital.
    It’s just not for breakfast any more.

    1. A massive sledgehammer to the skull should do the trick too.

  8. Seems pretty absurd that the government goes through this creepy medicalized execution mechanism, where someone gets strapped to a chair and injected like a macabre experiment.

    If these murderers are guilty of brutally violent crimes, why is a firing squad or hanging not the appropriate response? Why is the government trying to make this out to be something else, where the person just happens to go to sleep, as if that somehow lessens what is going on which is a state run execution?

    1. I say let the public see the blood and then they can make an informed democratic decision.

  9. Conservatives claim government is inept, misguided, inefficient, immoral, and unreliable . . . until government wishes to kill someone, at which point conservatives determine that government is righteous, competent, reliable (if not perfect), efficient, and well-intentioned.

    This is particularly true if the person government is attempting to help or kill is not white.

    1. Fuck, do ever bathe? Even in summer you stink like sewage-soaked carpet!

      1. Which one of you curb-stomped bigots is Blake Neff?

        Why did Tucker toss Blake under the bus?

        Other than cowardice, I mean.

    2. Oh fuck off with your rants! Libertarians are against the death penalty. Government has far too much power—which they invariably abuse—without giving them the power of capital punishment.

      After all this time, you still don’t grasp even the basic principles of severely curtailing government and leaving people alone who aren’t using force. It’s not that complex. I’m beginning to wonder if you’re illiterate and you ask a parent type your comments for you.

      1. He’s a troll and has been trolling Volokh since it was on WaPo (or before). He just comes up with the most inane drivel to post to try to get a rise in your emotions. My recommendation is just to ignore him and not read anything he posts.

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  12. I will start worrying about some murderous monster experiencing possible pain during its long-overdue execution, after I get done mourning the thousands of innocent unwanted pets in our society who are casually euthanized, and millions of factory farms animals who suffer miserable lives and often horrendous deaths.

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