Civil Liberties

The Federal Death Penalty Returns  

State-level executions have been on the decline since 2000, but the federal government recently got back in the business of executing prisoners.


The federal government is back in the business of executing prisoners.

Prior to 2020, the last federal death row inmate to be executed was Louis Jones Jr., put to death by lethal injection in 2003. Only three federal prisoners were executed under GOP President George W. Bush, among them Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. None were executed under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Seventeen years after Jones' execution, on July 14, the United States government executed Daniel Lewis Lee. Just two days later, the feds executed Wesley Ira Purkey. The next day, the feds executed Dustin Lee Honken. On August 26, they executed Lezmond Mitchell. The Trump administration has now executed more death row inmates than any president since Dwight Eisenhower.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 that he had directed the Bureau of Prisons to resurrect the execution protocols and scheduled Lee, Purkey, Honken, and two other men for lethal injections. The Justice Department selected death row inmates who had been convicted of particularly brutal crimes involving either the elderly or children.

When Barr made his announcement, he said that the Justice Department and the federal government "owe it to their victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

But in Lee's case, the family of the victims had opposed his execution for years. Lee was convicted in 1999 after he traveled to Arkansas to rob gun dealer William Mueller as part of a white separatist plot. He ended up killing Mueller, his wife Nancy, and their 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, and dumping their bodies in the Illinois Bayou.

Lee was the accomplice of another man who had masterminded the crimes and had been sentenced to life in prison—the same sentence the victims' family wanted for Lee.

While the legal fights delayed Lee's execution, with challenges making it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department was ultimately granted permission to carry out the execution via injection of pentobarbital.

Barr's move is a significant reversal of a broad trend away from capital punishment. State-level executions have been on the decline since 2000. Since 1973, 170 inmates on death row have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Three have been freed just this year. There's a very real possibility that if federal executions continue, Barr will be sending innocent men to their deaths.