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Federal Executions Set To Resume After 17 Years With 3 Deaths Scheduled Soon

The death chamber, equipped for lethal injection, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown in this April 1995 photo. Federal executions are set to resume on Monday.
Chuck Robinson
The death chamber, equipped for lethal injection, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown in this April 1995 photo. Federal executions are set to resume on Monday.

Capital punishment is on the decline in the United States, with only 13 new death sentences and seven executions so far this year.

But the U.S. Justice Department is moving in the other direction. Authorities are preparing the death chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., for the first federal executions in 17 years, starting Monday.

Death row inmates, their spiritual advisers and even one set of victims' relatives are moving to the courts to try to stop or delay the process. They're using a novel argument: the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious beliefs feature prominently in the new wave of legal challenges.

A Buddhist priest who has ministered to death row inmate Wesley Purkey has sued to delay the execution set for Wednesday. The priest, Seigen Hartkemeyer, 68, has a history of lung troubles and he worries going through multiple layers of prison security could expose him to COVID-19.

Hartkemeyer must be present, he argues, because Purkey will need him.

"I am bound by my religious duty to be present at his execution, where — on the threshold of death, and at his ultimate moment of crisis — he will suffer the most dire distress," Hartkemeyer wrote in a sworn declaration to the court.

But the danger of infection adds risks to Hartkemeyer's ability to take part, which is why he has asked a judge to delay the execution.

A Catholic priest who advises Dustin Honken, scheduled to be executed Friday, has joined that same lawsuit. Mark O'Keefe, 64, said he is "morally and spiritually obligated" to administer last rites — but he too says he fears for his health if he goes to the prison.

A woman whose daughter and granddaughter were killed in a crime involving inmate Daniel Lee has filed her own lawsuit over health risks she faces in traveling to Indiana next week. Earlene Peterson, who called herself a Trump supporter, also has asked the president for mercy in the case.

In a video message to Trump, she said, "I can't see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way. She wouldn't want it and I don't want it. That's not the way it should be. That's not the God I serve."

The pandemic is also presenting the legal teams for the three men scheduled to die next week with difficult questions about their obligations.

"Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building," said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We haven't had a federal execution in 17 years; there is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan," she said.

Officials cite precautions

Officials at the Indiana prison where the executions are scheduled to resume said they are taking steps to prevent infection.

Temperature checks will be required for people entering the facility. Officers will hand out face masks that must be worn throughout the entire process. They said social distancing of six feet will be recommended, "to the extent practical," a spokesperson said.

But people with experience at the Terre Haute prison doubted that would, in fact, be practical, given its narrow hallways, poor ventilation and a lack of space in the room where lawyers and clergy meet with prisoners before their deaths.

At the Justice Department, there's not much patience for additional delays.

Attorney General William Barr restarted the execution process about a year ago, but litigation over the new lethal injection protocol took months to move through the courts.

Barr pointed out last year that the first prisoners scheduled to die had carried out particularly gruesome crimes, including the murder of children and teenagers.

"We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr said.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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