Supreme Court Fast-Tracks Death Row Challenge to DOJ Lethal Injection Method

June 19, 2020 Updated: June 19, 2020

The Supreme Court on Thursday announced it would fast-track an appeal by four death-row inmates convicted of killing children who are challenging Attorney General William Barr’s plans to resume federal executions this summer.

The four inmates, whose execution dates were scheduled Monday for the months of July and August, argue that their scheduled lethal injections would violate the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, which says that the method of execution should be determined by the state where a capital crime is committed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled early April that the Trump administration’s plan to resume executions of federal death row prisoners via lethal injection is lawful. The execution protocol relies on a single drug, pentobarbital.

The justices ordered the DOJ and the death-row inmates to submit briefs in the coming days, before the court determines whether to hear the case.

It came three days after Barr ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of the four death row inmates, marking the first use of capital punishment by the federal government since 2003. Two of the four death-row inmates convicted of killing children were also convicted of raping the children they murdered, the Justice Department said.

The appeals court lifted an order in November 2019 by a lower court judge that had put on hold the executions.

Inmate Daniel Lewis Lee, once a member of a white supremacist group, was convicted in Arkansas in the murder of a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl. He robbed the family and shot them with a stun gun, covered their heads with plastic bags, and threw them into the Illinois bayou. His execution has been scheduled for July 13.

Wesley Ira Purkey of Kansas, whose execution is scheduled for July 15, was charged in the murder and rape of a 16-year-old girl. According to the DOJ, he dismembered, burned, and dumped the girl’s body into a septic pond. He was also charged in the killing of an 80-year-old woman.

Dustin Lee Honken, has had his execution scheduled for July 17 over the fatal shooting of five people—a mother and her daughters, aged 10 and 6, and two of his victims who had planned to testify against him.

Keith Dwayne Nelson kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl to death with a wire. His execution date has been set for Aug. 28.

The court in its order (pdf) Thursday granted the motion filed by Lee, Purkey, Honken, and Nelson seeking to expedite consideration of their petition.

Barr said in a statement Monday that the inmates have “received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws.”

“We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” he said.

Attorneys for the inmates have decried the DOJ’s decision to move ahead with the executions. In an emailed statement, Ruth Friedman, a lawyer for Daniel Lee, argued that the lead prosecutor and the victims’ family all oppose his execution “and believe a life sentence is appropriate.”