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Federal Government Executes 1st Prisoner In 17 Years After Overnight Court Rulings

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 10:37 am

Updated at 11:36 a.m. ET

The Justice Department has put to death Daniel Lee, 47, marking the first federal execution since 2003, after a chaotic overnight series of court rulings.

Lee had been convicted of killing three people, including a child, as part of a broader racketeering scheme to fund a white supremacist cause. He had waited more than 20 years on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

Lee, strapped to a gurney and connected to an IV in his left arm, said: "I didn't do it. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life but I'm not a murderer," according to a pool report from the prison.

Lee blamed a judge in Arkansas for ignoring DNA evidence in his case and said he was on the other side of the country when the killings happened. He said at one point, "I bear no responsibility" for the murders in his case, according to the pool report.

Lee's last words were, "You're killing an innocent man."

As a senior Bureau of Prisons official told Lee that he was being put to death, the condemned man shook his head, according to the pool report.

A U.S. marshal lifted a black telephone inside the execution room — a small square room with green tiles and windows looking at the witness' rooms, where observers were able to see what was taking place — and asked whether there was anything to impede the execution. He said there was not and the execution could proceed.

The time of death was 8:07 a.m.

A statement by the Bureau of Prisons following the execution described the gruesome 1996 murders of William Frederick Mueller and Nancy Ann Mueller and their 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell, and recounted Lee's 1999 conviction by a jury in the case.

Ruth Friedman, Lee's lawyer, criticized what she called the "shameful" process that led up to Lee's death. The prisoner was taken to the death chamber in the dark of night and kept in place even as the final legal obstacles were resolved, she said.

"Over the four hours it took for this reckless and relentless government to pursue these ends, Daniel Lewis Lee remained strapped to a gurney," Friedman said in a statement. "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 counsel, he was executed."

Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Ind., on Monday. Daniel Lee, a convicted killer, was executed the following morning after court rulings cleared the way.
Michael Conroy / AP

Attorney General William Barr used a statement later on Tuesday to repeat the details in Lee's case and state that, in Barr's view, the story has a fit conclusion.

"Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved," Barr said. "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."

Way cleared after court ruling

The execution followed an early morning 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a challenge to the single-drug protocol authorities used in the lethal injection.

Chief Justice John Roberts concluded Lee and other men on death row had virtually no chance of succeeding in their claim that pentobarbital injections amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

Roberts said that five states use pentobarbital in their execution protocols and that about 100 death sentences already had been carried out with that method.

The high court's four liberal justices dissented. Stephen Breyer raised doubts about the constitutionality of capital punishment, pointing out that Lee's co-defendant, considered more culpable in the murders, had received a life sentence.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor decried the rush to execute Lee, rather than build a fuller record in the lower courts. The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., had earlier agreed to expedite proceedings there over the lethal injection process.

"In its hurry to resolve the government's emergency motions, I fear the court has overlooked not only its prior ruling, but also its role in safeguarding robust
federal judicial review," Sotomayor wrote.

The Supreme Court also refused to consider a claim by Earlene Peterson, 81, a relative of Lee's victims, who had asked the Bureau of Prisons to delay the execution, citing the coronavirus pandemic. She and other family members had appealed to Attorney General William Barr and President Trump to commute Lee's sentence to life in prison.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The Justice Department put to death a man named Daniel Lee at 8:07 this morning. It was the first federal execution since 2003. NPR's Carrie Johnson covers the Justice Department, and she's been watching this case. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Who was Daniel Lee, and why was he on death row.

JOHNSON: Daniel Lee was 47 years old, and he had been on federal death row in Indiana since 1999. That's when he was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury. Daniel Lee was found guilty for his role in the brutal murder of a couple and their young daughter. It was all part of a bigger scheme to do some robberies to finance a white supremacist cause that Daniel Lee was involved in.

KING: Now, this execution really did come right down to the wire. There was, as I understand it, some legal chaos overnight, including at the Supreme Court. Can you explain what happened?

JOHNSON: Noel, there was so much chaos culminating in the Supreme Court rulings. Early this morning, around 2 o'clock in the morning, a divided court ruled 5-to-4, basically brushing back claims about the constitutionality of the lethal injection protocol by Daniel Lee and other men condemned to die on federal death row. For the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said those men were unlikely to succeed in their claim that the lethal injection process violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment since five states use the same method as the federal government, and something like 100 executions have taken place using that single drug, pentobarbital, in the last few years.

KING: The liberal justices took a different view, though, didn't they?

JOHNSON: Very much so. Justice Stephen Breyer basically said I have had reservations now for years about the constitutionality of capital punishment writ large. He also pointed out that Daniel Lee's codefendant, who in some ways was considered more culpable of these murders, had received a life sentence and was not sentenced to death. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor basically said that the Supreme Court majority had short circuited an important legal process in the lower courts, that these inmates basically deserve the right to have their legal challenges fully heard by the lower courts before the Supreme Court would swoop in. And now, of course, it's too late because Daniel Lee was executed this morning.

KING: Daniel Lee's was the first federal execution in 17 years. But there are more. There are others scheduled for this week. What are you watching? What's likely to happen there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there is likely to be more emergency litigation in the days to come. Wesley Purkey is scheduled to die on Wednesday and Dustin Honken on Friday. Both of these men have claims with respect to whether their lawyers and lower court proceedings were good enough. And they also have claims filed by their religious advisers, by two priests, who say they do not want to have to go to death row and administer last rites in the coronavirus pandemic. They're both elderly men, and they fear that the prison is basically putting them in the position of challenging their obligations to these prisoners versus risking their health. And so courts have not yet ruled those religious freedom claims yet. Those rulings come in the next 24 hours or so.

KING: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.