The US government is moving ahead with the execution of the first federal prison inmate in 17 years after a divided Supreme Court reversed rulings made by lower courts.
Daniel Lewis Lee had been scheduled to receive a lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital at 4pm local time on Monday.
Lee, from Yukon, Oklahoma, was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
But a court order issued by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday morning prevented his execution.
Judge Chutkan said inmates had presented evidence showing that the government’s plan to use only pentobarbital in executions “poses an unconstitutionally significant risk of serious pain”.
The inmates had identified alternatives, including the use of an opioid or anti-anxiety drug at the start of the procedure or a different method altogether, a firing squad, she said.
A federal appeals court in Washington refused the administration’s plea to step in, leaving the stay in place, before the Supreme Court acted by a 5-4 vote.
Nevertheless, Lee’s lawyers insisted the execution could not go ahead after midnight under federal regulations.
With conservatives in the majority, the court said in an unsigned opinion that the prisoners’ “executions may proceed as planned”. The four liberal justices dissented.
Lee’s execution was scheduled for about 4am local time on Tuesday, according to court papers.
The Bureau of Prisons had continued with preparations even as lower courts paused the proceedings.
Lee has had access to social visitors, seen his spiritual adviser and has been allowed to receive mail, prison officials said. The witnesses for Lee are expected to include three family members, his lawyers and spiritual adviser.
Shawn Nolan, one of the lawyers for the men facing federal execution, said: “The government has been trying to plough forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol.
The decision to move forward during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the US and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as relatives of Lee’s victims.
Some members of the victims’ family argued that they would be put at high risk for coronavirus if they had to travel to attend, and sought to delay the execution until it was safer to travel. Those claims were at first granted but also eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.
Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain. The developments are also likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
Two more executions are scheduled this week, though one, Wesley Ira Purkey, is on hold in a separate legal claim. Dustin Lee Honken’s execution is scheduled for Friday.
A fourth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is scheduled to be executed in August.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
But relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose that idea. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that it was being done on their behalf.
“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, `This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” said relative Monica Veillette.
Executions at federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 – most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.