Judge postpones execution of inmate who was set to be first federal prisoner put to death in 17 years

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FILE – In this Oct. 31 1997, file photo, Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. On Tuesday, July 7, 2020, family members of the victims of Lee, who is scheduled to be put to death next week, asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus pandemic puts them at risk if they travel to attend it. (Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP, File)

(CNN) — A federal judge postponed the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, a convicted killer who had been set to be the first federal inmate executed in over 17 years.

In a Friday filing — just three days ahead of Lee’s Monday execution date — Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, of the Southern District of Indiana, sided with the family of Lee’s victims, who had pleaded for a delay given the coronavirus pandemic.

Lee’s death was expected to usher in a new era for the death penalty in the United States, and three other men convicted for murdering children were slated to be killed in the coming weeks. The court’s order is a blow for the Trump administration, which announced last July that it would reinstate the federal death penalty after a nearly two-decade lapse. Attorney General William Barr first announced the death penalty was being revived last year — President Donald Trump had taken on the issue and called to “bring back the death penalty” — and set execution dates for Lee and four other men.

Lee, a one-time white supremacist who killed a family of three, had originally been scheduled for execution in December, but his case was delayed after the courts blocked the death sentence from being carried out.

Earlene Peterson — whose daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were tortured, killed and dumped in a lake by Lee and an accomplice — has opposed Lee’s execution, telling CNN last year that she did not want it done in her name.

Peterson, 81, and other family members had filed suit on Tuesday, asking the Indianapolis court to delay the execution because they are medically vulnerable to the virus and arguing that traveling to Indiana to witness the execution would place them “at grave risk of life-threatening complications from COVID-19.”

In a statement Friday after the ruling, an attorney for Peterson and the other family members said they “are grateful to the court for this ruling, which will enable them to exercise their right to attend the execution in the future while protecting themselves against the ravages of COVID-19.”

“The family is hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today’s ruling, a reversal of which would put them back in the untenable position of choosing between attending the execution at great risk to their health and safety, or forgoing this event they have long wanted to be present for,” the attorney, Baker Kurrus, said. “We hope the government finally acts in a way to ease, rather than increase, the burdens of Mrs. Peterson and her family who have already been through an unspeakable tragedy.”

In a development Sunday, the Bureau of Prisons announced in a court filing that a staff at its facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday. The staff member hasn’t been to the facility since July 8 after he realized he had been potentially exposed to the virus when he visited friends the previous weekend, who ended up testing positive themselves. The BOP said in the filing the staff member wasn’t in the execution chamber and did not come into contact with execution team members or others who would be involved in witnessing executions. The staffer did attend some meetings without wearing a mask.

Still, even with an effort to mitigate further spread of the virus by BOP, executions are on hold pending the federal court order.

Lee’s scheduled execution was long anticipated to be the moment that the federal government once again began fulfilling the fate of inmates sentenced to die after a series of court decisions in the last several months.

In December, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court blocking the death sentence from being carried out last year. But an appeals court decided in April that the executions could move forward, and Barr set new dates for Lee and three other men in June. Since then, lawyers for the men have made several last-ditch efforts to delay the executions, including the lawsuit that was filed this week by the family of Lee’s victims.

The three other federal inmates ordered to be executed in the days and weeks that follow are Wesley Ira Purkey for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl; Dustin Lee Honken, for shooting and killing five people, including two young girls; and Keith Dwayne Nelson for kidnapping, raping and strangling to death a 10-year-old girl.

Only three federal inmates have been executed in the United States since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium. Louis Jones, a Gulf War veteran, was the last federal inmate executed in March 2003 for the kidnapping and murder of 19-year-old Army Pvt. Tracie McBride.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Bureau of Prisons announced a staffer at the Indiana facility tested positive for coronavirus.

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