The federal government on Tuesday carried out its first execution in almost two decades, killing by lethal injection a man convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal delays, reviving the debate over capital punishment during a time of widespread social unrest. And the Trump administration’s determination to proceed with executions added a new chapter to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
The government is scheduled to execute two more men this week, including Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday for the killing of a Kansas City teenager in 1998. But legal experts say the 68-year-old Purkey, who suffers from dementia, has a greater chance of avoiding that fate because of his mental state.
The decision by the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with executions — the first since 2003 — has drawn scrutiny from civil rights groups and the wider public. Relatives of Lee’s victims sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.
Critics argued the government was creating a manufactured urgency for political gain. One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was “beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste.”
But Attorney General William Barr said, “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”
Barr had said earlier that the Justice Department had a duty to carry out the sentences, partly to provide closure to the victims’ families and others in the communities where the killings happened.
Lee’s lawyers tried multiple appeals to halt the execution, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 early Tuesday that it could move forward. He died at 8:07 a.m. EDT.
The vitims’ relatives noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.
Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organization, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock.
At a 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.
A U.S. District Court judge had put a hold on Lee’s execution on Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it.
On Tuesday morning, Lee had a pulse oximeter on a finger of his left hand, to monitor his oxygen level, and his arms, which had tattoos, were in black restraints, IV tubes coming through a metal panel in the wall.
He breathed heavily before the drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. As the drug was being administered, he raised his head to look around. In a few moments, his chest was no longer moving.
Lee was in the execution chamber with two Bureau of Prisons officials, a U.S. marshal and his spiritual adviser, described by a prisons spokesperson as an “Appalachian pagan minister.” They and Lee didn’t wear masks.
One of the senior prison officials announced Lee’s time of death, and the curtain closed.
There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama had one in early March.
Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
Since then, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
The attorney general said last July the review had been completed, allowing executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
State executions have fallen steadily since the 2003 federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019.