First federal execution in 17 years takes place in Terre Haute

Tuesday morning, the first federal execution in 17 years was carried out in Terre Haute. Daniel Lewis Lee was pronounced dead just after 8:00 a.m.

Posted: Jul 14, 2020 2:50 AM
Updated: Jul 14, 2020 12:17 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."

STATEMENTS

DANIEL LEE'S ATTORNEY STATEMENT

Later Tuesday morning an attorney for Lee provided a statement to News 10,"It is important for everyone to understand exactly what happened last night to our client, Daniel Lewis Lee. At 2 AM on July 14, while the country was sleeping, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision vacating the injunction that had been in place against the first federal execution in 17 years. Within minutes, the Department of Justice moved to re-set Danny Lee's execution--for 4 AM, summoning media and witnesses back to the prison in the very middle of the night. When it was brought to the government's attention that a court stay still remained in place, the DOJ first maintained that that stay presented no legal impediment to executing Danny Lee, but then filed an "emergency" motion to lift the stay."

"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 counsel, he was executed.

“It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic. 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."

Attorney General William P. Barr 

“This morning, in the first federal execution in 17 years, Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection at FCI Terre Haute in accordance with a death sentence imposed by a federal district court in 1999. Lee, a member of a white supremacist organization, brutally murdered William Frederick Mueller and Nancy Ann Mueller, along with her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell. After robbing and shooting them with a stun gun, Lee duct-taped plastic bags around their heads, weighed down each victim with rocks, and drowned the family in the Illinois bayou. On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death. Today, 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.”

Department of Justice Spokesperson Kerri Kupec

“Today, Daniel Lewis Lee faced the justice he deserved. Although Lee’s execution was originally scheduled to occur on Monday at 4:00 pm, a district court’s last-minute preliminary injunction required the Department of Justice to seek emergency vacatur from the Supreme Court. After receiving the green-light early on Tuesday morning, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began preparing Lee for the execution; however, a last-minute procedural claim by Lee’s attorney resulted in an additional delay. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ultimately rejected his claim, clearing the way for his execution. He was pronounced dead at 8:07 am.

The Attorney General appreciates the hard work, dedication, and professionalism demonstrated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons; the United States Marshals Service; and the law enforcement and legal teams that investigated and prosecuted Lee, and that for many years defended the government’s duty to carry out this lawful sentence.”

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 say 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.

DEMONSTRATORS 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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