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Federal Government Resumes Capital Punishment, Executes Daniel Lee


The Justice Department executed Daniel Lee this morning for murdering three people in 1996. Lee's death marks the first federal execution in 17 years. Attorney General William Barr has scheduled two more executions at the federal death chamber in Indiana later this week.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following their cases. She's here now to talk about them.


MCCAMMON: So Carrie, who is Daniel Lee? And how did he get to death row?

JOHNSON: He killed three people - a married couple and a little girl - part of a scheme to finance a white supremacist cause. Before he was put to death today, he said he was an innocent man. He claimed he was actually in a different part of the state at the time of the murders, but the execution proceeded anyway. He was declared dead by a coroner at 8:07 a.m. Eastern Time. Attorney General Bill Barr has relaunched federal executions for the first time in 17 years. He said today that he thought justice had been done. But Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center says, this isn't about careful execution of the law; it's about getting executions done at the political convenience of the Trump administration.

MCCAMMON: And Carrie, before the execution, there was a lot of activity in the courts. It looked like this might not happen. And it went on all night long. What happened?

JOHNSON: So much back-and-forth, Sarah. Lee and other men on federal death row had challenged the lethal injection process as cruel and unusual punishment. They said that using one drug, pentobarbital, could cause them to feel like they were drowning, which would be cruel and unusual punishment and violate the Eighth Amendment. But around 2 o'clock this morning, a divided Supreme Court let the executions proceed. Chief Justice John Roberts said the men had virtually no chance of succeeding in court. Five states already use that same drug for lethal injections, and about 100 executions have already taken place using it. So it's under way here in the U.S.

MCCAMMON: And is that kind of back-and-forth common in death penalty cases?

JOHNSON: It's very common. In fact the Supreme Court ruled this morning around 2:00 a.m. The Justice Department had witnesses in - gather for the execution at 4:00 a.m. But it took another several hours. There was another delay while Daniel Lee's lawyers tried to get the lower courts to intervene. That did not work, but lawyers tell me to expect that kind of back-and-forth all week. Two other men on death row are scheduled for execution Wednesday and Friday. The Justice Department set execution dates for all of these people on a short turnaround, so lots of issues are still moving through the courts.

MCCAMMON: And who are the other two men you mentioned?

JOHNSON: Their names are Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken. They're scheduled to be executed Wednesday and Friday. There's going to be a lot more legal back-and-forth for both of them. Wesley Purkey's lawyers say he has Alzheimer's disease and paranoid schizophrenia and that he may not understand the proceedings against him. Lower courts are going to have to rule on that this week.

MCCAMMON: There are more well-known inmates on federal death row right now, such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing; Dylann Roof, who was convicted of killing nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston five years ago. Are there executions more likely to be scheduled now that the Justice Department has resumed the death penalty?

JOHNSON: Well, remember, Sarah, there are 61 people on federal death row. There are a lot of people ahead of Tsarnaev and Roof. Also, these death penalty appeals can take years. Tsarnaev and Roof are both in the early stages of those appeals. The Death Penalty Information Center tells me both of them are likely decades away from any execution.

MCCAMMON: That's Carrie Johnson. She's national justice correspondent.

Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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