Judge blocks first federal execution in 17 years over coronavirus threat to victims' families

The victims’ families argue that Attorney General Bill Barr violated federal law when he scheduled the execution for July 13 “without adequate measures in place to protect them.”

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By Dartunorro Clark

A federal judge in Indiana on Friday halted the first federal execution in nearly two decades over concerns the victims’ families could not attend due to the coronavirus.

Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that 47-year-old Daniel Lee’s scheduled execution on Monday would be delayed after the family of his victims said doing so would put them in “to potentially deadly peril” as COVID-19 cases resurge and the virus is also ravaging America’s prisons.

As of July 10, more than 3.1 million cases have been confirmed in the U.S., based on NBC News reporting. There have been more than 130,000 deaths.

Danny Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. on Oct. 31 1997.Dan Pierce / AP file

In 1996, Lee and four other associates, who were members of a white supremacist organization, went on a crime spree that included the murders of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. All five defendants were arrested and convicted.

Earlene Peterson, Kimma Gurel, and Monica Veillette are members of Lee's victims' families and were selected by the warden at the U. S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana to attend the execution.

However, in the midst of the pandemic in June, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to move forward with the executions. They were originally scheduled last year, but a federal judge put a hold on the plan. A federal appeals court lifted that ban and then the U.S. Supreme Court denied to hear a challenge from the four convicted murderers slated for execution, clearing the way.

The victims’ families argue that Barr violated federal law when he scheduled the execution for July 13 “without adequate measures in place to protect them.”

Baker Kurrus, an attorney for the families, said in a statement Friday they are "grateful to the court for this ruling."

"We hope the government finally acts in a way to ease, rather than increase, the burdens of Mrs. Peterson and her family who have already been through an unspeakable tragedy," Kurrus said.

Barr's order directed prison officials to begin carrying out the first lethal injections in the federal system in 17 years. Court fights over the traditional three-drug method, and a shortage of one of those drugs, had brought federal executions to a halt. Barr ordered the use instead of a single drug, Pentobarbital, can slow down the brain and nervous system.

Judge Magnus-Stinson said in her order that she is granted the preliminary injunction until the Justice Department is in compliance with the federal law and “reasonable consideration of the plaintiffs' right to be present for the execution.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.