Washington (AFP) - A US appeals court ruled on Monday that the government could not resume its use of capital punishment, in a setback for President Donald Trump's advocacy of the death penalty.
Attorney General Bill Barr announced in July that the Federal Bureau of Prisons would adopt a new lethal injection protocol, clearing the way to carry out death sentences, with five executions set to start December 9 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The federal government hasn't carried out an execution since 2003, and the surprise announcement aroused the indignation of death penalty opponents.
Four of the defendants scheduled for death sued, challenging the legality of the new protocol.
In late November, a court suspended executions, pending a decision on the merits of their case.
Barr appealed to overturn the suspension, but on Monday, one week before the executions were to begin, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the attorney general had "not satisfied the stringent requirements" for winning the case.
"The courts have made clear that the government cannot rush executions in order to avoid judicial review of the legality and constitutionality of its new execution procedure," said Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for one of the convicts.
The government is expected to turn to the US Supreme Court to green light executions.
Were they to resume, the first person set to die is Daniel Lewis Lee, who robbed and killed a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl in 1996.
Federal executions were on hold for nearly four decades until 2001, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed.
Two more people were put to death in federal prisons over the subsequent two years, and then the federal executions were halted again.
Since then, all executions have been carried out by states. Twenty-five of the 50 US states maintain an active death penalty, while 21 do not allow it and four have suspended its use.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2020, has regularly called for increased use of the death penalty, both as a deterrent to drug trafficking and as a punishment for killers of police officers.