First federal execution in 17 years takes place in Terre Haute

FILE - In this March 17, 2003 photo, a guard tower flanks the sign at the entrance to the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

Tuesday morning, the first federal execution in 17 years was carried out in Terre Haute. Daniel Lewis Lee was pronounced dead just after 8 a.m.

Posted: Jul 14, 2020 10:06 AM
Updated: Jul 14, 2020 2:10 PM

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Tuesday morning, the first federal execution in 17 years took place in Terre Haute. The Department of Justice/Bureau of Prisons says Daniel Lewis Lee was pronounced dead after lethal injection at 8:07 a.m.

Overnight the Supreme Court cleared the way early Tuesday morning for the resumption of executions of federal prison inmates. 

After the Supreme Court ruling, there was more legal back-and-forth.

Attorneys involved with Daniel Lewis Lee's defense claimed carrying through the execution would be a violation of a different court order.

News 10 received a copy of the letter from the "Federal Capital Habeas Project." 

It says that an appeals court ruling overturning a stay of execution wouldn't go into effect until Wednesday. That meant the stay of execution was still in place.

In the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Lee's attorneys requested a rehearing on the matter, which the government opposed.

Around 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Court denied Lee's hearing request.

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE STATEMENT

In a statement provided the execution, the Department of Justice wrote, "A couple of hours ago, Mr. Lee's counsel raised for the very first time a technical legal issue challenging our ability to go forward with the execution. Specifically, his counsel claimed that the execution could not go forward because the 8th Circuit Court had not yet issued the mandate, even though that court had issues a decision several weeks ago vacating the stay issued by a district court in Arkansas.

While we disagree with Lee’s counsel claim, this was a claim that could have been raised for several weeks yet his counsel cited until the eleventh hour to raise it. Issuance of the mandate in our view, is not necessary as a matter of law to proceed with the execution, the 8th Circuit’s entry of judgement in early June and the Supreme Court’s order vacating the last remaining stay early this morning - judicial actions that allow the execution to lawfully move forward.

Notwithstanding, in an abundance of caution - and in direct response to the objections Lee’s course first raised a couple of hours ago - we have filed an emergency motion with the 8th Circuit’s to expedite the issuance of the mandate and ware awaiting the court’s decision."

SUPREME COURT RULING

The Supreme Court decision removes a hold ordered Monday morning by a trial judge. Hours before the first execution was set to take place, the District Court preliminarily enjoined all four executions. This involved a case in which the prisoners challenged the lethal injection Protocol, claiming that the use of pentobarbital likely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled that vacating that injunction is appropriate stating, "Among other reasons, the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim. That claim faces an exceedingly high bar."

It was a 5-4 vote, with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor dissenting. They stated "...because of the Court’s rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the Government plans to execute them...Today’s decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decisionmaking can be."

EARLIER COVERAGE | JUDGE BLOCKS FEDERAL EXECUTION SET TO HAPPEN IN TERRE HAUTE, DOJ APPEALING TO SUPREME COURT

Two more executions are scheduled this week, Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday and Dustin Lee Honken on Friday. However, a judge in a separate case ordered a temporary stay of execution for Purkey last week. A fourth federal execution is set for August.

WHO IS DANIEL LEE?

In 1999 a jury found Daniel Lee guilty of killing a family of three in Arkansas. They were a federal firearms licensee and his family. An eight-year-old girl was among the victims.

The Department of Justice says Lee and another man robbed and shot them in 1996. After that, they covered their heads with plastic bags, weighed them down with rocks, and threw them into a body of water.

The family of the victims, the prosecutor, and the judge who tried the case all say Lee should not be executed because the other man in the case received a life sentence, instead of the death sentence.

DEMONSTATORS ON FEDERAL EXECUTIONS

The Bureau of Prisons set up perimeters to demonstrators both "for" and "against" capital punishment on Monday. While officers were in place, no one showed up at the processing locations to be bussed to the prison. However, people involved in the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance did meet in areas near the prison.

They say they wanted to meet in a visible location, and that they felt the processing guidelines from the BOP were too strict. This includes the fact that processing started at noon, when the execution was set for several hours later. They also raised concerns about not being able to have cell phones or recording devices on them.

The guidelines also addressed COVID-19 precautions, "Demonstrators will be subject to COVID-19 screening in accordance with published CDC guidelines to include a temperature check. To the extent practical, social distancing of 6 feet should be exercised. Demonstrators must understand that any violation will subject to immediate removal from the premises."

TIMELINE



*Reporting from the Associated Press and CNN contributed to this story.

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