First Federal Execution In 17 Years Halted On Coronavirus Fears

A year ago the Department of Justice announced for the first time in nearly two decades the resumption of capital punishment in federal cases, with Attorney General William Barr announcing the process for the execution of five death-row in mates is set to move forward, marking the first federal executions since 2003

The first federal execution in 17 years was to take place on Monday of this next week prior to a federal judge in Indiana halting it. 47-year old Daniel Lee is to die by lethal injection for the 1996 slaying of a family — William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

The only execution chamber in the federal prison system, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute. Via AP

But Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson in an unusual ruling has halted the scheduled execution on coronavirus fears. She cited that the families of the victims are too afraid of traveling during the pandemic, as well as the potential risk to elderly family members at the site of the execution given that COVID-19 has especially ravaged prisons and correctional facilities.

The family of the victims filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to get the execution date pushed back:

Earlene Peterson, the mother of Nancy Mueller and grandmother of 8-year-old Sarah Powell, two of the three brutally murdered in 1996, says the coronavirus poses too much of a travel threat for her to leave her home in Hector to go to Indiana.

Right now, Lee is set to be put to death Monday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, but the lawsuit filed Tuesday could change that.

In it, Peterson’s attorney sites multiple health conditions of different family members that could be lethal if one of them contracts coronavirus while traveling to the execution.

Upon the delay, the Justice Department said it would be appealing Magnus-Stinson’s ruling to the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

1997 file photo Danny Lee, The Courier via AP.

Two more executions are scheduled at Terre Haute for next week as it’s the only federal prison to have an active death chamber. The judge’s ruling in the Lee execution does not impact these.

The men awaiting federal death sentences were involved in heinous crimes involving deaths of families and children: “In January 1996, Lee and his accomplice, Chevie Kehoe, burglarized Mueller’s house in Tilly and waited for him and his wife and stepdaughter to come home. Lee and Kehoe used a stun rod to incapacitate the victims before taping plastic bags over their heads to asphyxiate them, authorities said.”

Prior to stopping federal execution cases in 2003, perhaps the more notorious criminal to be put to death was Timothy McVeigh in 2001, for killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, and further recent death row cases awaiting execution include Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2015 for the Boston Marathon bombing, and white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2017 for the Charleston church shooting.

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