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Justice Department asks Supreme Court to lift hold on federal executions

Prison officials had scheduled a Dec. 9 execution for one federal death row inmate.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is asking the Supreme Court to let the government carry out the first federal execution in nearly 17 years.

A federal judge in Washington put a hold late last month on plans for a resumption of the death penalty, which was to begin next week. Late Monday, after a federal appeals court refused to lift the hold, Solicitor General Noel Francisco urged the Supreme Court to either stay the judge's ruling or toss it out entirely.

Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons in July to adopt a change to the lethal injection rules for federal executions, switching from the combination of three drugs that has led to botched state executions in the past, to a single drug — pentobarbital, a barbiturate or sedative.

Prison officials scheduled a Dec. 9 execution for Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who murdered a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, by tying rocks to them and throwing them into the Illinois Bayou.

But Federal District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan put a hold on those plans, ruling that they violated the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which directs that federal executions must be carried out "in the manner prescribed by the law of the state" in which the death penalty was imposed. Because the revised federal protocol would be different, she said, it violated that provision.

In urging the Supreme Court to block that order, Francisco said the judge misunderstood the law. It simply refers to the type of execution, such as lethal injection or something else, and not to the details of how it's carried out. If the judge's interpretation was right, he said, a state could prevent a federal execution by refusing to reveal all the nuances of its procedures.

In seeking to resume executions of federal death row inmates, Francisco said the Justice Department was "acting on behalf of the public and the victims" to enforce death sentences handed down by juries.

Barr's move runs counter to changing public attitudes toward the death penalty. Gallup reported in late November that a majority of Americans now say life in prison is a better approach for punishing the crime of murder. Its survey showed 60 percent say life without parole "is the better penalty," while 36 percent favored the death penalty.

Gallup said it was the first time that a majority supported life over the death penalty since it began asking the question in 1985.