Supreme Court won't stop scheduled federal executions

Court fights over lethal injections and a drug shortage had brought federal executions to a halt.

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Monday to stop the Trump administration from resuming executions of federal inmates who have exhausted their death penalty appeals.

At the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the Bureau of Prisons scheduled four executions beginning July 13. They were originally scheduled for last year, but a federal judge put a hold on the plan. A federal appeals court lifted that ban, and now the Supreme Court has declined to further delay them.

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 — a powerful sedative.

In response to an inmate lawsuit, a federal judge ruled last year that Barr's order violated a law requiring federal executions to be carried out "in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed." Because the states use the three-drug method, the judge said, Barr's order was invalid.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the decision, holding that the law requires the federal government only to use the same general method of execution, not to follow the precise rules for carrying it out. Lawyers for three of the inmates scheduled for execution appealed to the Supreme Court and asked the justices to put the Bureau of Prisons' plan on hold until the justices decided whether to take up the case.

Prison officials scheduled the July 13 execution for Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl, by tying rocks to them and throwing them into the Illinois Bayou. The other three death row inmates were also convicted of especially brutal murders involving children.

The Department of Justice urged the Supreme Court not to impose a delay and to decline to take up the appeal, which it said would further postpone the scheduled executions for several more months. Solicitor General Noel Francisco said the court should deny "their claim that they should be permitted to continue litigating for another year or more in the hopes of dictating the precise details of their deaths — an opportunity they denied to the victims of their crimes."