U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared in July that the Justice Department intended to resume carrying out the death penalty — though those plans are on hold after a federal court decision Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared in July that the Justice Department intended to resume carrying out the death penalty — though those plans are on hold after a federal court decision Wednesday. [Drew Angerer | Getty Images]

Judge Blocks Justice Department’s Plan To Resume Federal Executions

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A judge has blocked the U.S. government’s plan to begin executing federal prisoners for the first time in nearly 20 years. U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday halting four executions that government officials had planned to carry out starting next month.

In a memorandum issued with her order, Chutkan wrote that at least one of the four death-row inmates — Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken — was likely to succeed in his lawsuit against federal agencies.

“Plaintiffs have clearly shown that, absent injunctive relief, they will suffer the irreparable harm of being executed under a potentially unlawful procedure before their claims can be fully adjudicated,” the judge wrote.

The four convicted murderers’ sued the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons over the department’s decision earlier this year to change the federal execution protocol. They argue that the changes — which outline the use of the a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than the three-drug cocktail used in many states — fail to comply with Federal Death Penalty Act.

That 1994 law mandates that the U.S. government follow the execution practices of the state in which the inmate’s sentence was handed down.

“Given that the FDPA expressly requires the federal government to implement executions in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction,” Chutkan wrote, “this court finds Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits as to this claim.”

Given their similarities, the four lawsuits were then consolidated into a single case before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A fifth inmate, Lezmond Mitchell, whose execution had been scheduled for Dec. 11, obtained a stay of his own in a separate split decision last month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” according to Chutkan, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

The order brings a halt to a process put in motion less than four months ago, when the Justice Department announced its intention to resume capital punishment at the federal level. In a statement issued in July, U.S. Attorney General William Barr maintained that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The Justice Department did not immediately offer a public response to Wednesday’s decision.

Executions have been rare in recent decades, with only three inmates put to death by the U.S. government since the federal death penalty statute was effectively reinstated in 1988 — and none since 2003, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

At the state level, meanwhile, capital punishment is legal in 29 states — though controversy over the means with which it is carried out. Several botched executions in recent years have raised serious questions about the effectiveness of drugs used in lethal injections.

In a statement issued Wednesday after Chutkan’s decision, a lawyer for the four plaintiffs on federal death row celebrated the stay.

“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” Shawn Nolan said.

“By granting the preliminary injunction, the court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”

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