Trump Administration Appeals After Judge Orders New Block on Federal Executions

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
July 13, 2020Updated: July 13, 2020

A federal judge ordered a new delay on federal executions, just hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out in a federal prison in Indiana.

The move prompted the Trump administration to immediately appeal the decision.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on July 13 granted a preliminary injunction to four death row inmates, effectively blocking the first federal execution in 17 years from proceeding later in the day.

Chutkan said that it’s in the public interest to issue a temporary block because there were still legal issues that needed to be resolved, adding that “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process.”

“The succession of last-minute rulings is the result of the government’s decision to set short execution dates even as many claims, including those addressed here, were pending,” Chutkan wrote in her ruling (pdf). “The government is entitled to choose dates, but the court cannot take short cuts in its obligations in order to accommodate those dates.”

The judge accepted the inmates’ argument that they are likely to win on their claims that the 2019 Protocol method of execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. She said that the inmates had shown that “pentobarbital alone poses an unconstitutionally significant risk of serious pain.”

The inmates had identified alternative methods of execution that would “significantly reduce the risk of serious pain” such as using a pre-dose of opioid painkiller or anti-anxiety medication, or execution by firing squad, Chutkan added.

Immediately after, the Justice Department (DOJ) filed a notice of appeal to challenge her ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The department also filed a motion to ask Chutkan to consider her order, arguing that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is likely to suffer harm if the executions are postponed.

“Each execution requires significant advanced planning and coordination,” the department argued (pdf). “These preparations cannot easily be undone; ‘[a]ny adjustment to the execution dates would require significant planning and coordination such as that which already has been undertaken by BOP to date.'”

The DOJ declined a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

Federal Executions
A guard tower flanks the sign at the entrance to the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., on Dec. 10, 2019. (Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

The new block comes a day after a federal appeals court made way for the federal government to carry out plans to execute Daniel Lewis Lee. The 47-year-old, who was set to die by lethal injection, was convicted in 1999 for the brutal murder of an Arkansas family of three—gun dealer William Mueller; his wife, Nancy; and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

In that case, family members of Lee’s victims sued the federal government in an attempt to postpone Lee’s execution, citing CCP virus concerns. They said that the government’s decision to schedule the executions in July amid the pandemic burdens their ability to attend the executions, arguing that attending the execution puts them at risk of catching the disease.

Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the Southern District of Indiana ruled late July 10 in favor of the three plaintiffs and ordered Lee’s execution to be postponed. She found that the federal government’s act of setting Lee’s execution date without considering the right of the plaintiffs to be present “was arbitrary and capricious and not in accord[ance] with [the] law.”

The DOJ immediately sought to overturn Magnus-Stinson’s decision by asking the 7th Circuit to block her decision. The department argued (pdf) that the district judge’s order misconstrued “federal and state law and has no basis in equity.”

The three-panel judge of the 7th Circuit overturned the district court’s order, saying that the plaintiff’s argument “lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous.” They said the federal government’s action in setting an execution date cannot be reviewed by the courts and that the plaintiffs “have no statutory or regulatory right to attend the execution.”

In June, Attorney General William Barr ordered the BOP to schedule the executions of the four inmates—Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Keith Dwayne Nelson. Their executions have been scheduled for dates in July and August.

The decision to proceed with the executions during the pandemic garnered widespread criticism, with critics saying that the scheduling had no regard for the safety and health of those involved.

“Hundreds of people will be exposed if this week’s federal executions are allowed to go forward. This willingness to risk lives is indefensible,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on July 12.

A lawyer for Lee’s victims said in a statement to media outlets that the federal government’s decision has put his clients in “the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety.”

“Eighty-one-year-old Earlene Branch Peterson, the mother and grandmother of the victims, along with Ms. Peterson’s surviving daughter and granddaughter, wanted to attend the execution and had planned to be there when it was scheduled for December 2019. Because the government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these three women would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time,” the lawyer, Baker Kurrus, said in the statement.

Kurrus added that his clients will appeal the 7th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court.