A judge has blocked the first federal execution in 17 years over concerns regarding the CCP virus from the family members of the victims of Daniel Lee. The Justice Department plans to appeal the ruling.
Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 killings, by him and a co-conspirator, of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
His execution by lethal injection was scheduled for July 13 at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the Southern District of Indiana ruled to delay Lee’s execution because of concerns over Lee’s victims’ family members over the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus—a novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China—which has reportedly spread throughout prisons across the United States, reported The Associated Press.
Family members of Lee’s victims—Earlene Peterson, Kimma Gurel, and Monica Veillette—were selected by the warden at the U. S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana to attend Lee’s execution.
They had requested that the execution be called off because their fear of the CCP virus would keep them from attending.
“The harm to Ms. Peterson, for example, is being forced to choose whether being present for the execution of a man responsible for the death of her daughter and granddaughter is worth defying her doctor’s orders and risking her own life,” the judge wrote.
There are at least four confirmed CCP virus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, and one inmate there has died, according to federal statistics.
The injunction means the execution is delayed until there is no longer such an emergency. The court order applies only to Lee’s execution and does not halt two other executions that are scheduled for later next week.
The Justice Department, just an hour after the ruling to stay Lee’s execution, filed a notice to appeal to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and filed court papers asking the district judge to stay the order pending the appeal.
In the filing, the department contended that preparations for the execution “cannot easily be undone,” having taken extensive efforts in planning and coordination with other law enforcement officials. The department also said that dozens of staff members were being brought in from other facilities ahead of the scheduled execution.
“The family is hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today’s ruling, a reversal of which would put them back in the untenable position of choosing between attending the execution at great risk to their health and safety, or forgoing this event they have long wanted to be present for,” Baker Kurrus, an attorney for the victims’ family, told the Associated Press.
He said that the family were “grateful to the court for this ruling, which will enable them to exercise their right to attend the execution in the future while protecting themselves against the ravages of COVID-19,” reported the Wall Street Journal.
The family had earlier asked that Lee be given a life sentence instead of being executed.
The Justice Department said it would not comment on ongoing litigation.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.