Justice Department moving ahead with execution plan next week

July 09, 2020 - 5:32 am
Justice Department moving ahead with execution plan next week

AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

The Justice Department is moving forward with its plan to resume federal executions next week for the first time in more than 15 years. Three people are scheduled to die by lethal injection in one week at an Indiana prison, beginning Monday. Bureau of Prisons officials insist they will be able to conduct the executions safely and have been holding practice drills for months.

Family members of the victims and the inmates will be able to attend but will be required to wear face masks. Prison officials will take temperature checks. 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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U.S. Attorney General William Barr has said the government has an obligation to carry out the sentences, including the death penalty, that are imposed by courts, and that the Justice Department owes it to the families of the victims and others in their communities to do so.

“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month.

Three prisoners are scheduled to be executed next week.

—Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman.

—Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children.

—Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old. Family members of Lee's victims have asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus puts them at risk if they travel to attend the execution. They have asked that the execution be put off until a treatment or a vaccine is available for the virus.

Keith Dwayne Nelson, scheduled to be executed in August, was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raping her in a forest behind a church, then strangling her.

Three of the men had been set to be put to death last year, when Barr first announced that the federal government would resume executions.  The effort was put on hold by a trial judge. The federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the trial judge’s order. The Supreme Court then refused to halt the process, A lower court could still stop them from happening.

The executions will take place at the federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. One inmate there has died from COVID-19, but the federal prison system has struggled to combat the coronavirus. There have been no coronavirus cases in the special unit where the four men are being held, officials said.

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. Last July, Barr said the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.

Barr 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.

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