Federal Judge Issues Injunction Halting Executions of Inmates on Federal Death Row

A federal judge from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction on November 20 that stalled the executions of four federal prisoners who were to be put to death beginning in December.

The Trump administration announced earlier this year that it was resuming executions of death row inmates after nearly 20 years.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s injunction ruled that the inmates’ executions would impede them from pursuing legal action over the government’s lethal injection method. The judge added in a memorandum that at least one of the four men was likely to be successful in his suit against the federal government,NPR reported.

“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,” Chutkan wrote.

The four death row inmates — Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken — filed complaints against federal agencies over the summer, joining a long-standing lawsuit against the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons that was filed in 2005 to challenge the use of a three-drug cocktail in lethal injections.

The case was placed on hold when the Obama administration stopped federal executions in 2011 to review potential changes to the injection combination, according to NPR. The four new complaints were combined into a single case to argue that the Justice Department’s announcement in July violated the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which mandates the federal government follow the execution practices of the state in which the inmate was sentenced.

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

Why It’s Important

There are currently 62 people who are on federal death row, according to the Bureau of Prisons. In July, Attorney General William Barr announced that the government would resume executions in December.At the time, Barr said the five men that were chosen were convicted of murdering children and would be executed by lethal injection at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.The Justice Department states the five men have exhausted their appeals and post-conviction remedies.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law, and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said during his announcement.

However, Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The North Starthat this wasn’t the case. Dunham pointed to two cases, one involving 37-year-old Lezmond Mitchell and the other involving 46-year-old Daniel Lee.

Mitchell was convicted in 2003 of killing 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her 9-year-old granddaughter Tiffany Lee. The murders took place within the Navajo Nation in Arizona. At the time of his trial, the Navajo Nation and the victims’ family told federal prosecutors that they did not support the government seeking the death penalty. In July, however, the Justice Department said the 37-year-old would be executed on December 11.

Mitchell, the sole Native American on federal death row, was denied his appeal, but was granted a “certificate of appealability,” the Death Penalty Information Center said. A certificate of appealability is required if an inmate’s habeas corpus appeal – an appeal of their confinement – is denied.

The legal document is needed in order for another court to hear the inmate’s argument that their habeas corpus appeal was wrongfully denied.

In October, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a stay of execution for Mitchell, who is a member of the Navajo Nation. The stay prevents the federal government from executing Mitchell before the court could review an appeal on possible anti-Native American bias in his case.

Dunham told The North Starthat the family of the people Lee killed are also against the death penalty for him. “The government claimed that they were seeking to carry out these executions to do justice for the victims families…[but it] had nothing to do with what the victim’s family members actually wanted,” Dunham said.

Barr also announced a new protocol for executions that involved a single drug, pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug cocktail that was originally being used. The three-drug procedure prompted lawsuits following some botched executions.

“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,” Shawn Nolan, an attorney for the men facing execution, told The New York Times.

Who Else’s Executions Were Halted and Why Were Their Crimes Tried at the Federal Level?

In 1972, in its opinion of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled the federal death penalty was unconsitutional. Federal execution was reinstated, however, in 1988 and expanded to include about 60 offenses in 1994. The last federal execution was carried out in 2003, when Louis Jones, a decorated Gulf War veteran, was executed for the kidnapping and murder of 19-year-old Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride.

Here’s a look at the other four death row inmates who saw their executions stalled by the ruling:

  • Daniel Lewis Lee: The 46-year-old white supremacist was convicted of killing an Arkansas couple, William Mueller and Nancy Mueller, and Nancy’s 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. Lee and Chevie Kehoe broke into the family’s home in 1996, suffocated the three victims and threw them into the Illinois Bayou. Despite Lee being convicted of all three murders, Kehoe reportedly killed the youngest victim, The New York Times reported. Lee’s case was a federal one because Lee was convicted of murder to aid racketeering, a federal offense. Federal prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe murdered the family in a bid to steal a large cache of guns and $50,000 cash in order to establish whites-only nation, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His execution was originally scheduled for December 9.

  • Wesley Ira Purkey: The 67-year-old was convicted after he kidnapped, raped and brutally murdering a 16-year-old girl named Jennifer Long in 1998. Purkey kidnapped Long in Kansas City, Missouri and brought her back to his home in Lansing, Kansas. There he repeatedly raped her, killed her, dismembered her body and then burned her remains, The Kansas City Star reported. Purkey also bludgeoned 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales of Kansas City, Kansas with a claw hammer. Because Purkey transported Long across state lines, his case fell under federal jurisdiction. He was scheduled for execution on December 13.

  • Alfred Bourgeois: The 55-year-old Louisiana trucker was sentenced to death in 2004 for torturing and murdering his 2-year-old daughter at a Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in 2002. According to The Dallas Morning News, the day of the toddler’s murder, she accidentally tipped over her potty training chair in her father’s 18-wheeler, prompting him to fly into a rage. He then slammed his daughter’s head into the truck window. Bourgeois case fell under federal jurisdiction because it occurred on a naval base. He was originally scheduled to be executed on January 13, 2020.

  • Dustin Lee Honken: The 51-year-old was convicted of killing five people, including two girls aged 6 and 10. Honken shot and killed two men, Terry DeGeus and Gregory Nicholson, who were set to testify against him in a 1993 drug trial, as well as Nicholson’s girlfriend and the mother of the two girls, Lori Duncan. The Des Moines Register reported that Honken hid the bodies in northern Iowa and were not found for four years. Although Iowa does not have the death penalty, Honken was convicted of 17 federal crimes, including tampering with witnesses, conspiracy to commit murder and several counts of the kingpin statute. His execution was scheduled for January 15, 2020.

What Can Be Done

There is a growing sentiment against the death penalty in the U.S. and around the world. Support for the death penalty in the U.S. hit a four-decade low in 2016, according to Pew Research Center. However, it experienced a slight uptick in 2018.

Several non-profit organizations continue to advocate for the end of capital punishment. To learn more about abolishing the death penalty visit Amnesty Internationaland take action with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia, Australia and the Americas.