First federal execution in 17 years carried out after Supreme Court cleared way

Elisha Fieldstadt and The Associated Press
·4 min read

The U.S. carried out the first federal execution in 17 years at a prison in Indiana Tuesday morning after a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way.

Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a plot to establish a whites-only nation, was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute.

“I didn’t do it,” Lee said before he was executed. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer. ... You’re killing an innocent man.” He was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m.

In 1996, Lee and four 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.

At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Lee and Chevie Kehoe, who recruited him, stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to fund and set up a whites-only nation.

Lee was scheduled to receive a lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital at 4 p.m. Monday, but a federal judge's order prevented the execution.

Hours later, the Supreme Court issued an unsigned majority opinion saying that "the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim" and "that claim faces an exceedingly high bar."

The Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment. The majority opinion says that four executions, all planned to take place at the penitentiary in Terre Haute, may proceed as planned.

Image: Daniel Lee Lewis waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. on Oct. 31 1997. (Dan Pierce / AP file)
Image: Daniel Lee Lewis waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. on Oct. 31 1997. (Dan Pierce / AP file)

Lee's execution, the first by the federal Bureau of Prisons since 2003, was initially halted Friday over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, which were raised by civil rights groups and relatives of Lee’s victims who had sued to try to stop it.

Those relatives had long argued that Lee deserved a sentence of life in prison. They noted that Kehoe received a life sentence, and countered any contention that Lee's 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.

Lee's attorney, Ruth Friedman, said in a statement that he was executed "a mere 31 minutes after a court of appeals lifted the last impediment to his execution at the federal government's urging, while multiple motions remained pending, and without notice to counsel."

“It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic. It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it," said Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project. "And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste, in the middle of the night, while the country was sleeping. We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are."

In a statement, Attorney General William Barr countered: "Today, 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.”

Prior to his execution, Lee had been allowed social visitors and meetings with his spiritual adviser and had been able to receive mail, prison officials said, according to NBC affiliate WTWO in Terre Haute.

He was in the execution chamber with two men whom the Bureau of Prisons would only identify as “senior BOP officials,” a U.S. Marshal and Lee's spiritual adviser, whom a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson described as an “Appalachian pagan minister.”

Lee breathed heavily before the lethal drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. He mumbled to himself briefly as his chest continued to rise and fall.

Two more executions are scheduled this week: Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday and Dustin Lee Honken on Friday. Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled to be executed in August.