First federal prisoner in 17 years executed hours after Supreme Court decision

Daniel Lewis Lee on Tuesday became the first federal prisoner executed in more than 17 years, just hours after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against a last-minute attempt to halt the execution.

Lee, 47, a white supremacist convicted of killing a family of three in 1996, was executed by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m., according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“You’re killing an innocent man,” Lee said with his final words, according to a reporter with the Indianapolis Star who witnessed the execution

Lee’s killing came just hours after the Supreme Court overruled a lower court and cleared the way for federal executions to be carried out for the first time since 2003.

The conservative majority court in an unsigned opinion issued around 2 a.m. rejected inmate claims that the lethal injection protocol adopted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) last year amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The majority said vacating the lower court’s decision is warranted because the inmates are unlikely to succeed “on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim,” which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment, and faced “an exceedingly high bar.”

The court’s four more liberal members, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented on various grounds.

Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Ginsburg and Kagan, said the court’s “rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture” removed the opportunity for a “meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the government plans to execute them.”

The Supreme Court ruling cleared the last substantive hurdle before Lee’s execution, and hours later a federal appeals court in St. Louis removed the final procedural barrier.

“Today, Daniel Lewis Lee faced the justice he deserved,” DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, called the outcome shameful.

“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,” Friedman said. “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.”

A federal execution has not been carried out since 2003, due in part to a widespread shortage during the Obama administration of lethal injection drugs in the so-called three-drug cocktail.

Attorney General William Barr announced last July that federal capital punishment would resume with the use of a single drug, pentobarbital sodium.

Lee was convicted of the 1996 murder an 8-year-old girl and her parents as part of an effort to obtain funds for a white supremacist organization, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“After overpowering the Muellers, interrogating their daughter, and stealing approximately $80,000 worth of cash, guns, and ammunition, Lee and an accomplice shot the three victims with a stun gun, duct-taped plastic trash bags over their heads, weighed down their bodies with rocks, and drowned them in the Illinois Bayou,” the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement.

A jury found Lee guilty in 1999 of the three murders and related charges, and he was sentenced to death.

Two more federal executions are scheduled for this week, followed by another next month.

Updated at 11:54 a.m.

Tags David Lewis Lee Elena Kagan federal executions Indiana Indiana Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer Supreme Court William Barr
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