In Dead-of-Night Ruling, Supreme Court's Right-Wing Majority OKs First Federal Execution in 17 Years

Bill Pelke of Anchorage, Alaska expresses his opposition to the death penalty during a protest near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana where Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to be executed on July 13, 2020. Lee was ultimately killed the following morning after an overnight decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In Dead-of-Night Ruling, Supreme Court's Right-Wing Majority OKs First Federal Execution in 17 Years

Condemning the state-sanctioned murder of Daniel Lewis Lee, critics accused the high court of enabling the DOJ to "short-circuit federal appellate process to allow it to execute people in the middle of a global pandemic."

The Trump administration carried out the first execution of a federal death row inmate since 2003 on Tuesday morning, killing Daniel Lewis Lee by lethal injection just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court's right-wing majority issued an overnight, unsigned decision vacating a lower court's order temporarily halting his execution due to concerns about the government's new single-drug protocol.

Lee, who was killed despite opposition from rights groups and relatives of his victims, was pronounced dead at 8:07 am at a federal facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. "I didn't do it," Lee, convicted of murdering a family of three in Arkansas, reportedly said before he was executed. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I'm not a murderer. ...You're killing an innocent man."

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan of Washington, D.C. had issued a preliminary injunction Monday to prevent the execution of Lee and three other death row inmates set to be killed in July and August. Chutkan's ruling was intended to allow courts to hear legal cases related to the sentences, including challenges to the Trump administration's secretly developed lethal injection protocol involving the drug pentobarbital.

Critics have expressed concerns about the drug since U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 the administration's plan to resume federal executions using just pentobarbital in place of a three-drug cocktail that encountered supply issues. The Justice Department immediately appealed Chutkan's Monday ruling that the new protocol "is very likely to cause plaintiffs extreme pain and needless suffering during their executions," which would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Although a federal appellate court denied the Justice Department's request to proceed with Lee's execution Monday night, the Bureau of Prisons--an agency under the department--proceeded Tuesday morning after a 5-4 Supreme Court decision released after 2 am declared that "the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim."

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reiterated that the court should reexamine whether capital punishment is constitutional. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan that "today's decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decisionmaking can be."

Citing safety concerns related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, family members of the three people Lee was convicted of killing had requested a delay in his execution last week--which was initially granted before being overturned Sunday. One of the relatives, Monica Veillette, told the Associated Press that "for us it is a matter of being there and saying, 'This is not being done in our name; we do not want this.'"

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, referenced the pandemic in a critical Tuesday tweet about Lee's execution:

Other critics also took aim at the Justice Department and Supreme Court, calling the five justices' decision "unprecedented" and arguing the Bureau of Prisons did not have the authority under federal law to go through with Lee's execution on Tuesday because the death warrant had expired at midnight.

Shortly after the high court's decision, the Justice Department began summoning witnesses including journalists with the plan to execute Lee at 4 am.

After Lee's lawyers made the government aware that a stay remained in place, the department filed an emergency motion to lift it. His attorney Ruth Friedman explained in a statement Tuesday that "over the four hours it took for this reckless and relentless government to pursue these ends, Daniel Lewis Lee remained strapped to a gurney: a mere 31 minutes after a court of appeals lifted the last impediment to his execution at the federal government's urging, while multiple motions remained pending, and without notice to his counsel, he was executed."

"It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic," Friedman continued. "It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it. And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping. We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are."

Lee's death elicited demands for an end to the death penalty in the United States:

The Justice Department is still planning to execute federal death row inmates Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday, Dustin Lee Honken on Friday, and Keith Dwayne Nelson on August 28.

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