TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection 16 hours after his scheduled death. Lee used his final moments to stare through the glass of the media witness room to say “you’re killing an innocent man.”
Daniel Lewis Lee was a white supremacist convicted of the 1996 killing of a family of three; William Mueller, Nancy Mueller, and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell. Lee and an accomplice shot the family with a stun gun before taping plastic bags over their heads, weighing them down with rocks and dumping them in a bayou.
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.
I served as a media witness to Lee’s execution. Mine was one of the last faces he saw before poison was pushed through his veins.
The Department of Justice scheduled Lee’s execution for Monday, July 13th at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A back-and-forth legal battle would push his actual death back by 16 hours.
I reported to the federal prison Media Center in Terre Haute, Indiana at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Monday. That’s where I got my temperature checked, was asked if I was displaying any coronavirus symptoms and issued a face mask. Forty-five minutes later, I was driven with other media witnesses to the Terre Haute United States Penitentiary where I was processed by going through a metal detector and body scanner. The white vans the media witnesses were escorted in were cleaned and swapped out before our return to the Media Center.
We came back to the center, which is actually a staff training facility, instead of moving on to the death chamber. I watched the clock tick closer to 4 o’clock without access to my cell phone or the world outside the prison.
Time kept passing and I kept waiting. Media witnesses were eventually told we could have our phones again. That’s when I learned about continued legal delays.
It was after 5 o’clock when I was finally told media witnesses would be able to leave, but we would all have to go through processing again when we were called back.
Each media witness would return to the center later that evening only to be told once again that we could leave. We would be notified as soon as the DOJ cleared the legal hurdles. Public information officers with the Bureau of Prisons told us they were on standby and still ready to move forward with the execution.
A BOP official started a group text chain, including herself, and each media witness.
At 2:18 a.m. we received this message:
“Please make your way back to the Media Center. We will be resuming the execution at approximately 4 am. Please respond that you have received this message.”
That text message would be followed by a BOP call, a call to my newsroom, and a mad dash back to the Media Center.
— Heather Good (@HeatherGoodWTHI) July 14, 2020
I drove up an empty highway 41 before turning left down a dark road toward the prison. It was eerily quiet. Fog coated spots in the road and I could barely see the prison towers through the haze. I arrived at the Media Center and waited for the other media witnesses to arrive before going through processing again.
By 3:58 in the morning, the media witness vans pulled away from the processing area toward the execution chamber making a right on Justice Road. Media witnesses were the last to enter the building around 4:20 a.m.
The building is divided into rooms. Eight media witnesses, including myself, were joined by two officers and two officials in one room. The family of Lee’s victims were in one room and Lee’s guests were in yet another.
Lee invited his spiritual advisor, an Appalachian pagan minister, to his execution. Two attorneys and three family members were also invited.
Once inside the media room, there was a flurry of note-taking. From the grey plastic chairs to the blue-green speckled carpet, the green painted trim surrounding two windows into the actual death chamber, and Centers for Disease Control posters warning of the dangers of coronavirus; I jotted down all I could.
I thought the execution would begin quickly. What I didn’t know was Lee’s counsel raised a last-minute appeal that would delay the process even further. I would sit in that room for more than three hours before the curtains would rise and Lee’s execution would be carried out. All the while, we would sit right next to each other in our face masks with hand sanitizer on the floor next to our chairs.
A BOP official attempted to leave the room to get us more information about the delay but quickly turned our attention to two square windows in front of us. At 7:46 in the morning, the curtain was lifted. I quickly stood with my pad of paper and pen ready to document the first federal execution in 17 years.
Daniel Lee was already on the gurney. He lifted his head and looked directly into the media witness room. Lee could see in to every room except the one holding the family of his victims.
After a brief statement about the crimes for which Lee was convicted and his execution, Lee was able to share his final thoughts.
Daniel Lewis Lee used his last breaths to maintain his innocence.
He said, “I bear no responsibility…” and “I didn’t do it.”
He told media witnesses to ask the judge about DNA evidence that was left out of the trial. Lee made reference to a first, second, and final meal saying “it should speak for itself” but he did not provide any more detail. The BOP declined to share information about his last meal with the press.
Before he resigned himself to what was to happen, he said, “You’re killing an innocent man.”
Strapped to the gurney, Lee wore a brown shirt. A blue-green sheet covered him from his feet to his chest. Both arms were outstretched and intravenous lines were attached to both hands. Those lines ran through a square box in the wall behind him. A medical team behind that wall would administer the fatal dose of pentobarbital. His left hand rested on a white towel.
With the execution underway, Lee would turn his head to the side and occasionally look up. I watched his breathing slow from meaningful inhales and exhales to barely detectable movements. His eyes closed. Lee’s movements became so weak his breathing appeared more like light rumblings on his belly than actual breaths.
He stopped moving and I waited.
“Death has occurred” came over the speaker in the media room at 8:07 a.m. on Tuesday, July 14th, and the curtains were lowered. The wait was over.