Jul 15, 2020 4:30 PM

Update: Mental fitness claim halts Kan. killer's execution-- for now

Posted Jul 15, 2020 4:30 PM
Wesley Purkey, from Kansas, is one of three federal inmates scheduled to be put to death this week- photo KDOC
Wesley Purkey, from Kansas, is one of three federal inmates scheduled to be put to death this week- photo KDOC

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A judge on Wednesday halted the execution of a man, said to be suffering from dementia, who had been set to die by lethal injection in the federal government’s second execution this week after a 17-year hiatus.

Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing, was scheduled for execution Wednesday night at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death Tuesday after his eleventh-hour legal bids failed.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., imposed two injunctions prohibiting the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with Purkey’s execution. The Justice Department immediately appealed in both cases. A separate temporary stay was already in place from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The legal wrangling suggested a volley of litigation would continue in the hours ahead of Purkey’s scheduled execution, similar to what happened before the government executed Lee following a ruling from the Supreme Court. One of the injunctions imposed Wednesday halts not only Purkey’s execution, but another scheduled for Friday and one in August.

Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation, was the first of four condemned men scheduled to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic raging inside and outside prisons.

This competency issue is a very strong issue on paper,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The Supreme Court has halted executions on this issue in the past. At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies is going to go down to the last minute.”

Judge Chutkan didn’t rule on whether Purkey was competent but said the court needed to evaluate the claim. She said there was no question he’d suffer “irreparable harm” if he was put to death before his claims could be evaluated.

Lee’s execution had gone forward a day late. It was scheduled for Monday afternoon, but the Supreme Court only gave the green light in a 5-4 ruling early Tuesday.

Repeatedly on Wednesday, a federal judge also denied a request from Dustin Lee Honkin, an Iowa drug kingpin scheduled to be executed on Friday, to delay his execution. The judge said he would not delay Honken’s execution date due to the coronavirus pandemic and said the Bureau of Prisons was in the best position to weigh the health risks.

The issue of Purkey’s mental health arose in the runup to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors said he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned the body and dumped her ashes in a pond in Kansas. Purkey was separately convicted and sentenced to life in the beating death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.

But the legal questions of whether he was mentally fit to stand trial or to be sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he’s mentally fit enough now to be put to death. Purkey’s lawyers argue he clearly isn’t, saying in recent filings he suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

“He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row,” one of this lawyers, Rebecca Woodman, said. “But as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him.”

Purkey believes his planned execution is part of a conspiracy involving his attorneys, Woodman said. In other filings, they describe delusions that people were spraying poison into his room and that drug dealers implanted a device in his chest meant to kill him.

While various legal issues in Purkey’s case have been hashed, rehashed and settled by courts over nearly two decades, “competency is something that is always in flux,” so the issue of mental fitness for execution can only be addressed once a date is set, according to Dunham, who teaches law school courses on capital punishment.

In a landmark 1986 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution prohibits executing someone who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he’s being executed. It involved the case of Alvin Ford, who was convicted of murder but whose mental health deteriorated behind bars to the point, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.

“I could say I was Napoleon,” Dunham said. “But if I say I understand that Napoleon was sentenced to death for a crime and is being executed for it — that could allow the execution to go ahead.”

Purkey’s mental issues go beyond Alzheimer’s, his lawyers have said. They say he was subject to sexual and mental abuse as a child and, at 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and psychosis.

Last week, three mental health organizations urged U.S. Attorney William Barr to commute Purkey’s sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center said executing mentally ailing people like Purkey “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and does not comport with ‘evolving standards of decency.’”

Glenda Lamont, the mother of the slain teenager, told The Kansas City Star last year she planned to attend Purkey’s execution.

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy,” Lamont said. “At the same time, he is a crazy madman that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore.”

President Donald Trump’s campaign touted the Lee execution in an email blast, saying the president “Ensured Total Justice for the Victims of an Evil Killer” and demanded his political opponent Joe Biden explain why he now opposes capital punishment.

There was an unofficial moratorium on federal executions after the Obama administration ordered a review in 2014 following a botched execution in Oklahoma.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A Kansas man who raped and killed a 16-year-old girl and fatally beat an 80-year-old woman is scheduled to be among the first three inmates executed when the federal government resumes the practice after 17 years.

Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, of Lansing, Kansas, is set to die by lethal injection on Wednesday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Those who attend the execution will be required to wear face masks.

Critics have said the decision to resume executions during a pandemic is political and that the death sentences do not need to be urgently fulfilled. But Attorney General William Barr says the government has an obligation to carry out the sentences imposed by courts.

Purkey’s execution is expected to be the nation’s second this week. Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma was put to death on Tuesday for murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Defense attorneys argued Purkey is not mentally competent to be executed and that it’s not safe to conduct executions during a pandemic.

“He has longstanding issues of mental illness, now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and his dementia has progressed to the point that he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government seeks to execute him,” said one of his attorneys, Rebecca Woodman.

Purkey believes his execution is part of a conspiracy against him by the federal government in retaliation for his frequent complaints about prison conditions, his attorneys said. They argued that the Constitution prohibits putting to death someone who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he is being executed.

Purkey was sentenced to death for the 1998 killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. He repeatedly stabbed her, cut her body into pieces with a chainsaw, burned her remains then dumped her ashes 200 miles (320 kilometers) away in a septic pond in Clearwater, Kansas.

Nine months later, Purkey was arrested in the killing of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas. He was working for a plumbing company when he went to her home in October 1998 to fix a kitchen faucet.

Purkey was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to Bale’s murder.

A federal jury in the Western District of Missouri convicted Purkey in 2003 of kidnapping Long, resulting in her death. He was then sentenced to death.

Woodman argued Purkey has an “excruciating history of trauma at home and school” and that his trial lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence of his traumatic childhood, which included sexual abuse by a Catholic priest.

Purkey had been set to be put to death in December, before a federal judge put the execution on hold.

On Friday, three mental health organizations urged Barr to stop the execution and commute his sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The letter — signed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center — cites Purkey’s childhood history of physical and sexual abuse and his psychiatric problems.

Long’s mother, Glenda Lamont, told the Kansas City Star last year that she planned to attend the execution. The Associated Press has been unable to contact her since the execution has been rescheduled.

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy,” Lamont said last year. “At the same time, he is a crazy mad man that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore.”

Bureau of Prisons officials said they will be able to conduct the executions safely and have held practice drills. Prison officials will check temperatures. The agency will also make personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, available for witnesses, but there are no plans to test anyone attending the executions for COVID-19, officials said.

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CHICAGO (AP) — The man next on the list to be executed by the federal government after a nearly 20-year hiatus ended this week may have a better chance of avoiding lethal injection, legal experts say, because he suffers from dementia and so, his lawyers say, can no longer grasp why he’s slated to die.

Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing, is scheduled for execution Wednesday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death Tuesday after his own 11th-hour legal bids failed.

Lee, who was convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation, was the first of four condemned men scheduled to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic raging both inside and outside prisons.

Purkey, 68, of Lansing, Kansas, would be the second, but his lawyers were still expected to press for a ruling from the Supreme Court on his competency.

“This competency issue is a very strong issue on paper,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The Supreme Court has halted executions on this issue in the past. At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies is going to go down to the last minute.”

Lee’s own execution went forward a day late. It was scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday, but the Supreme Court only gave the green light in a narrow 5-4 ruling early Tuesday.

The issue of Purkey’s mental health arose in the runup to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors alleged that he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her, then dumped her ashes 200 miles away in a septic pond in Kansas. Purkey was separately convicted and sentenced to life in the beating death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.

But the legal questions of whether he was mentally fit to stand trial or to be sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he is mentally fit enough now, in the hours before his scheduled execution, to be put to death.

Purkey’s lawyers argue he clearly is not, saying in recent filings that he suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

“He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row,” one of this lawyers, Rebecca Woodman, said. “But as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him.”

Purkey believes his planned execution is part of a vast conspiracy involving his own attorneys, Woodman said. In other filings, they describe delusions that people were spraying poison into his room and that drug dealers implanted a device in his chest meant to kill him.

While various legal issues in Purkey’s case have been hashed, rehashed and settled by courts over nearly two decades, the issue of mental fitness for execution can only be addressed once a date is set, according to Dunham, who also teaches law school courses on capital punishment. A date was only set last year.

“Competency is something that is always in flux,” so judges can only assess it in the weeks or days before a firm execution date, he said.

In a landmark 1986 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits putting someone to death who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he is being executed. It involved the case of Alvin Ford, who was convicted of murder but whose mental health deteriorated behind bars to the point where, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.

Legal standards as to whether someone has a rational understanding of why an execution is taking place can be complex, Dunham explained.

“I could say I was Napoleon,” he said. “But if I say I understand that Napoleon was sentenced to death for a crime and is being executed for it — that could allow the execution to go ahead.”

Purkey’s mental issues go beyond Alzheimer’s, his lawyers have said. They say he was subject to sexual and mental abuse as a child and, at 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and psychosis.

Last week, three mental health organizations urged U.S. Attorney William Barr to stop Purkey’s execution and commute his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. The letter — signed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center — said that executing mentally ailing individuals like Purkey “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and does not comport with ‘evolving standards of decency.’”

The mother of the teen he killed, Glenda Lamont, told the Kansas City Star last year she planned to attend the execution.

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy,” Lamont said. “At the same time, he is a crazy mad man that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore.”

The runup to Lee’s execution demonstrated that a lot can still happen before Purkey’s scheduled one.

On Monday, hours before Lee was set to be put to death, a U.S. District Court judge put the execution on hold over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, before the Supreme Court overturned it early Tuesday.

If prison officials get the go-ahead to execute Purkey, he would be put to death by lethal injection, as Lee was, and in the same small room at the Terre Haute prison.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The federal government on Tuesday carried out its first execution in almost two decades, killing by lethal injection a man convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal delays, reviving the debate over capital punishment during a time of widespread social unrest. And the Trump administration’s determination to proceed with executions added a new chapter to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Just before he died at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, Lee, professed his innocence.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.” said Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

The government is scheduled to execute two more men this week, including Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday for the killing of a Kansas City teenager in 1998. But legal experts say the 68-year-old Purkey, who suffers from dementia, has a greater chance of avoiding that fate because of his mental state.

The decision by the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with executions — the first since 2003 — has drawn scrutiny from civil rights groups and the wider public. Relatives of Lee’s victims sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

Critics argued the government was creating a manufactured urgency for political gain. One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was “beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste.”

But Attorney General William Barr said, “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”

Barr had said earlier that the Justice Department had a duty to carry out the sentences, partly to provide closure to the victims’ families and others in the communities where the killings happened.

However, relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 argued he deserved life in prison rather than execution. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf but said concern about the coronavirus kept them away.

Lee’s lawyers tried multiple appeals to halt the execution, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 early Tuesday that it could move forward. He died at 8:07 a.m. EDT.

The vitims’ relatives noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organization, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock.

At a 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.

A U.S. District Court judge had put a hold on Lee’s execution on Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it.

On Tuesday morning, Lee had a pulse oximeter on a finger of his left hand, to monitor his oxygen level, and his arms, which had tattoos, were in black restraints, IV tubes coming through a metal panel in the wall.

He breathed heavily before the drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. As the drug was being administered, he raised his head to look around. In a few moments, his chest was no longer moving.

Lee was in the execution chamber with two Bureau of Prisons officials, a U.S. marshal and his spiritual adviser, described by a prisons spokesperson as an “Appalachian pagan minister.” They and Lee didn’t wear masks.

One of the senior prison officials announced Lee’s time of death, and the curtain closed.

There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama had one in early March.

Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Since then, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

The attorney general said last July the review had been completed, allowing executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

State executions have fallen steadily since the 2003 federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out the first federal execution in almost two decades, putting to death a man who killed an Arkansas family in a 1990s in a plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. The execution came over the objection of the victims’ family.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The decision to move forward with the execution -- the first by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 -- drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee's victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to move forward with the execution -- and two others scheduled later in the week -- during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee's victims.

Critics argued that the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.

"The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol," said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.

The developments are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Lee's execution went off after a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early Tuesday in a 5-4 ruling and allowed it to move forward.

Attorney General William Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 strongly opposed that idea and long argued that Lee deserved a sentence of life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that the execution was being done on their behalf.

"For us it is a matter of being there and saying, `This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,'" relative Monica Veillette said.

They noted that Lee's co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist orgaization, known as the Aryan Peoples' Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock.

At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.

A U.S. District Court judge put a hold on Lee's execution on Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it. That delay came after an appeals court on Sunday overturned a hold that had been put in place last week after the victims' relatives argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution.

Two more executions are scheduled this week, though one, Wesley Ira Purkey, was on hold in a separate legal claim. 

Purkey, of Kansas, raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman had been scheduled for execution on Wednesday. 

Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children is scheduled for execution Friday.

There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama carried out one in early March.

Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Though there hadn't been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.

Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily since the last federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019, nine of which were in Texas.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — The Trump administration was moving ahead early Tuesday with the execution of the first federal prison inmate in 17 years after a divided Supreme Court reversed lower courts and ruled federal executions could proceed.

Daniel Lewis Lee had been scheduled to receive a lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital at 4 p.m. EDT Monday. But a court order issued Monday morning by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan prevented Lee’s execution.

A federal appeals court in Washington refused the administration’s plea to step in, leaving the hold in place, before the Supreme Court acted by a 5-4 vote. Still, Lee’s lawyers insisted the execution could not go forward after midnight under federal regulations.

With conservatives in the majority, the court said in an unsigned opinion that the prisoners’ “executions may proceed as planned.” The four liberal justices dissented.

Lee’s execution was scheduled for about 4 a.m. EDT Tuesday, according to court papers.

The Bureau of Prisons had continued with preparations even as lower courts paused the proceedings.

Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, has had access to social visitors, visited with his spiritual adviser and has been allowed to receive mail, prison officials said. The witnesses for Lee are expected to include three family members, his lawyers and spiritual adviser.

Lee was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.

The decision to move forward during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee’s victims.

Some members of the victims’ family argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend, and sought to delay the execution until it was safer to travel. Those claims were at first granted but also eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.

Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain. The developments are also likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Two more executions are scheduled this week, though one, Wesley Ira Purkey, was on hold in a separate legal claim. 

Purkey, of Kansas, raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman had been scheduled for execution on Wednesday. 

Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children is scheduled for execution Friday.

A fourth man, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is scheduled to be executed in August.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose that idea. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that it was being done on their behalf.

“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, `This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” said relative Monica Veillette.

The federal prison system has struggled in recent months to contain the exploding number of coronavirus cases behind bars. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.

Barr said he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.

But on Sunday, the Justice Department disclosed that a staff member involved in preparing for the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus, but said he had not been in the execution chamber and had not come into contact with anyone on the specialized team sent to handle the execution.

The three men scheduled to be executed this week had also been given execution dates when Barr announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.

Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A U.S. district judge on Monday ordered a new delay in federal executions, hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out at a federal prison in Indiana. The Trump administration immediately appealed to a higher court, asking that the executions move forward.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said there are still legal issues to resolve and that “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process.” The executions, pushed by the administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.

Chutkan said the inmates have presented evidence showing that the government’s plan to use only pentobarbital to carry out the executions “poses an unconstitutionally significant risk of serious pain.”

Chutkan said the inmates produced evidence that, in other executions, prisoners who were given pentobarbital suffered ”flash pulmonary edema,” which she said interferes with breathing and produces sensations of drowning and strangulation.

The inmates have identified alternatives, including the use of an opioid or anti-anxiety drug at the start of the procedure or a different method altogether, a firing squad, Chutkan said.

The Justice Department appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

And the Bureau of Prisons continued with preparations in order to move forward should the stay be lifted. Lee has had access to social visitors, has visited with his spiritual adviser and has been allowed to receive mail, prison officials said. He’s been under constant staff supervision. The witnesses for Lee are expected to include three family members, his lawyers and spiritual adviser.

The new hold came a day after a federal appeals court lifted a hold on the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, which was scheduled for 4 p.m. EDT on Monday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

On Wednesday, Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman is scheduled for execution.

Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children is also scheduled to for execution Wednesday.

“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.

The Lee execution was to be carried out after a federal appeals court lifted an injunction on Sunday that had been put in place last week after some members of the victims’ family argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend. The family on Monday appealed to the Supreme Court.

The decision to move forward with the execution — and two others scheduled later in the week — during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee’s victims.

Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain. The developments are also likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Anti-death penalty protesters began gathering in Terre Haute on Monday. Organizer Abraham Bonowitz drove a van through the city with a sign emblazoned on the side of a trailer that read, ““Stop executions now!”

Because of coronavirus concerns, Bonowitz said his group, Death Penalty Action, wasn’t encouraging others to show up. No more than a few dozen protesters were expected to join him, and they were all being told to wear masks, he said.

“It’s symbolic,” Bonowitz said about the protests. “We are just here to say that this is wrong.”

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee strongly oppose that idea. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that it was being done on their behalf.

“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, `This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” said relative Monica Veillette.

The relatives would be traveling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus’ spread is virtually impossible. An attorney for the family members who have objected to the execution said they hadn’t traveled to Indiana, as of Monday morning.

The federal prison system has struggled in recent months to contain the exploding number of coronavirus cases behind bars. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.

Barr said he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.

But on Sunday, the Justice Department disclosed that a staff member involved in preparing for the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus, but said he had not been in the execution chamber and had not come into contact with anyone on the specialized team sent to handle the execution.

The three men scheduled to be executed this week had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain. A fourth man is scheduled to be put to death in August.

Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Departmen t to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Sunday that the first federal execution in nearly two decades may proceed as scheduled on Monday.

The ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a lower court order that had put the execution of 47-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee on hold.

Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday at a federal prison in Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

On Wednesday, Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman is scheduled for execution.

Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children is also scheduled to for execution Wednesday.

Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled Friday in Indiana that Lee's execution would be put on hold because of concerns from the family of the victims about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

The Justice Department argued that the judge’s order misconstrued the law and asked the appeals court to immediately overturn the ruling.

The appeals court found that the claim from the victims’ family “lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous.”

The Justice Department also argued that while the Bureau of Prisons has taken measures to accommodate the family and implemented additional safety protocols because of the pandemic, the family’s concerns “do not outweigh the public interest in finally carrying out the lawfully imposed sentence in this case.”

But in a court filing Sunday, Justice officials said a staff member involved in preparing for the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Justice Department said the development would not mean an additional delay in the government’s timetable because the worker had not been in the execution chamber and had not come into contact with anyone on the specialized team sent to the prison to handle the execution.

The relatives would be traveling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus’ spread is virtually impossible. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.

The victims’ family had argued they weren’t trying to overturn Lee’s death sentence but instead they “seek to exercise their lawful rights to attend the execution of Lee, so that they can be together at that moment in time as they grieve their losses,” according to the filing.

The family will appeal to the Supreme Court.

“The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety,” said family attorney Baker Kurrus. “Because the Government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these three women would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time.”

The family hopes there won’t be an execution, ever. They have asked the Justice Department and President Donald Trump not to move forward with the execution and have long asked that he be given a life sentence instead.

The relatives, including Earlene Branch Peterson, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the killing, have argued that their grief is compounded by the push to execute Lee in the middle of a pandemic. Peterson, who is 81 and has not left the county where she lives since February, was told by her doctor she should not travel and should avoid contact with others as much as possible to during the pandemic, the filing said.

“Plaintiffs face the unacceptable choice between exercising their right to witness the execution and risking exposure to a deadly disease,” the lawyers wrote in an appeals court filing on Saturday.

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press in recent days that he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.

The injunction that was imposed late Friday delays the execution until there is no longer such an emergency. The court order applies only to Lee’s execution and does not halt two other executions that are scheduled for later in the week.

The decision to resume executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now.

The federal prisons system has struggled in recent months to stem the exploding coronavirus pandemic behind bars. As of Friday, more than 7,000 federal inmates had tested positive; the Bureau of Prisons said 5,137 of them had recovered. There have been nearly 100 inmate deaths since late March

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department filed an emergency motion with a federal appeals court on Saturday seeking to move forward with the first federal execution in nearly two decades.

Daniel Lee, 47, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Monday at a federal prison in Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

But Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled Friday in Indiana that the execution would be put on hold because of concerns from the family of the victims about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 130,000 people and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

The Justice Department is seeking to immediately overturn that ruling. In the emergency motion to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it argues that the judge’s order “misconstrues both federal and state law and has no basis in equity” and asks the appeals court to permit the government to carry out the execution on Monday afternoon.

“The capital sentence at issue here — imposed for the murder of an eight-year-old and her parents during a robbery to fund a white supremacist movement — has been repeatedly upheld by federal courts, and the inmate’s own efforts to halt its implementation have very recently been rejected by this Court and the Supreme Court,” prosecutors wrote in the filing.

In response, lawyers for the victims’ family said the relatives “need no reminder of the gruesome details of those crimes.”

The Justice Department also argues that while the Bureau of Prisons has taken measures to accommodate the family and implemented additional safety protocols because of the pandemic, the family’s concerns “do not outweigh the public interest in finally carrying out the lawfully imposed sentence in this case.”

The relatives would be traveling thousands of miles and witnessing the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the virus’ spread is virtually impossible. There are currently four confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates at the Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate there has died.

The family argues it isn’t trying to overturn Lee’s death sentence but instead they “seek to exercise their lawful rights to attend the execution of Lee, so that they can be together at that moment in time as they grieve their losses,” according to the filing. The family hopes there won’t be an execution, ever. They have asked the Justice Department and President Donald Trump not to move forward with the execution and have long asked that he be given a life sentence instead.

The relatives, including Earlene Branch Peterson, who lost her daughter and granddaughter in the killing, have argued that their grief is compounded by the push to execute Lee in the middle of a pandemic. Peterson, who is 81 and has not left the county where she lives since February, was told by her doctor she should not travel and should avoid contact with others as much as possible to during the pandemic, the filing said.

“Plaintiffs face the unacceptable choice between exercising their right to witness the execution and risking exposure to a deadly disease,” the lawyers wrote.

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press this week that he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional measures in place, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.

The injunction that was imposed late Friday delays the execution until there is no longer such an emergency. The court order applies only to Lee’s execution and does not halt two other executions that are scheduled for later this week .

On Wednesday, Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman is scheduled for execution.

Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children is also scheduled to for execution Wednesday.

The decision to resume executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now.

The federal prisons system has struggled in recent months to stem the exploding coronavirus pandemic behind bars. As of Friday, more than 7,000 federal inmates had tested positive; the Bureau of Prisons said 5,137 of them had recovered. There have also been nearly 100 inmate deaths since late March.