Federal judge blocks first federal execution in 17 years – and it’s due to virus concerns of the victim’s family

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TERRE HAUTE, IN- The latest “victim” of COVID-19 was actually faceless and nameless. It was a federal execution, that was to have taken place on Friday until a federal judge blocked it.

The reason?

The victim’s family asked the court to consider their risk of contracting the coronavirus by traveling to attend the execution.

CBS News reported that Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who robbed and murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl, had been scheduled for execution this coming Monday. However, his death sentence has been put on hold after a judge issued a temporary injunction at the request of Lee’s victims.

Earlene Peterson’s daughter Nancy Mueller, along with her granddaughter Sarah Powell were two of the victims Lee murdered. Peterson, her surviving daughter, and granddaughter filed a petition with the court whereby they claimed traveling across the country during the current COVID-19 pandemic would put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

WBNG reported that the Justice Department filed an emergency motion with an appeals court looking to overturn the lower court’s ruling. The motion was filed with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday. Lee had been scheduled to die by lethal injection next week at a federal prison in Indiana.

On Friday, Chief Judge Jane Magnus Stinson of the Southern District of Indiana issued an emergency stay of execution, noting that by going forward it could irreparably harm Peterson.

“The harm to Ms. Peterson…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,” Stinson wrote.

Stinson’s order continued that a new date may be set for Lee’s execution when the Bureau of Prisons can show “reasonable consideration” for Peterson and her family’s right to attend Lee’s execution.

News 9 said that U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, where the execution was scheduled to take place, currently has four inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

This could very well be a stalling tactic by Peterson, who has actually advocated against Lee’s execution, and has, as a Trump supporter asked the president to commute Lee’s sentence to life without parole.

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Last July, Attorney General William Barr announced that he had directed the Bureau of Prisons to restart the enforcement of the death penalty.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement at the time.

Peterson however has stated that this is not what she wants.

“Yes, Daniel Lee damaged my life, but I can’t believe taking his life is going to change any of that,” Peterson said I a video statement last September. “I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way. In fact, it kinda, like, dirties her name because she wouldn’t want it and I don’t want it That’s not the way it should be.”

Part of what is driving Peterson’s opposition to Lee’s sentence is an apparent disparity between Lee’s sentence and that of a co-defendant. In fact, the federal judge who oversaw Lee’s trial, as well as the lead prosecutor in the case, wrote separate letters in 2014 to then-Attorney General Eric Holder arguing against the disparity.

The co-defendant in the case, Chevie Kehoe was actually identified as the so-called mastermind behind the crime, and it was he in fact who was the one who murdered 8-year-old Sarah Powell after Lee refused to do so.

For some reason, Kehoe was not sentenced to death as Lee was. Some people believe that the reason was that Kehoe appeared more “clean-cut” during the trial, while Lee, who had lost an eye in a fight and has a swastika tattooed on his neck, looked more “like an outlaw.”

Lee’s was just one in a number of executions set to be carried out this summer, with three other men scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, two of which are planned for next week.

One of those, Wesley Ira Purkey, was convicted in 2003 for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, and also the violent death of an 80-year-old woman. He is scheduled to be put to death on Wednesday. The Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, his spiritual advisor filed a similar complaint as Peterson, using COVID-19 risk as a reason for postponing the execution.

His lawsuit read, “Rev. Hartkemeyer must decide whether to risk his own life in order to exercise his religious obligation to be present for Mr. Purkey’s execution.”

No ruling has yet been made in that case.

Last winter, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked initial attempts by the Trump administration to resume implementation of the death penalty after a lower court had ruled the method used in the executions may have violated the Federal Death Penalty Act.

However in June, the court reversed course and opened the door for executions to resume, this after then denied hearing last-minute petitions brought by four inmates seeking to block use  of a new protocol for their executions.

Recently, over one-thousand faith leaders signed a statement asking the president and attorney general to put a halt on the executions. “As our country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions,” the statement said.

The Death Penalty Information Center says that there are currently 62 federal prisoners awaiting execution on death row.


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