Judge again blocks US from resuming federal executions

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., once again blocked the Trump administration from resuming executions just hours before the first federal death sentence since 2003 was scheduled to be carried out.

Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday ordered a preliminary injunction against the government while the courts hear a legal challenge from four death row inmates against the administration's new execution protocols announced last summer. She ruled that the new protocol likely violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling is the second injunction Chutkan has issued in the case. A similar order from last November that found the new protocols likely violated federal death penalty laws was overturned by an appeals court, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) has already filed a notice with the court saying it intends to appeal Chutkan's new ruling and asking her to stay her decision.

"The district court’s last-minute, day-of-execution injunction is inappropriate, conflicts with binding Supreme Court precedent, and should be promptly stayed or summarily vacated effective immediately," the DOJ wrote in an emergency motion Monday afternoon, a little over an hour before the administration's scheduled execution.

Chutkan's ruling came just hours after a federal appeals court had cleared the way for Daniel Lewis Lee to become the first federal inmate put to death in 17 years. Lee was scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Eastern for murdering a family of three in 1996.

The judge, who was appointed to the federal district court in D.C. by former President Obama, wrote in her decision that there are still legal issues surrounding the new execution protocols that the higher courts have not considered. She also scolded the Trump administration for quickly moving to set execution dates while the court challenge was playing out.

"The last-minute nature of this ruling is unfortunate, but no fault of the Plaintiffs," she wrote in her opinion. "The succession of last-minute rulings is the result of the Government’s decision to set short execution dates even as many claims, including those addressed here, were pending. The Government is entitled to choose dates, but the court cannot take short cuts in its obligations in order to accommodate those dates."

Chutkan ruled that there's sufficient evidence showing that the drug the DOJ intends to use to carry out executions "produces sensations of drowning and asphyxiation" and causes "extreme pain, terror and panic."
 
"Finally, because the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed in a manner consistent with our Constitution, the court finds that it is in the public interest to issue a preliminary injunction," Chutkan wrote.
 
Shawn Nolan, one of the inmates' attorneys, hailed the decision.
 
“The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol," Nolan said in a statement. "The district court’s injunction ensures that the courts will have the opportunity to carefully address those issues. Given that these executions threaten to become COVID-19 super-spreader events, the injunction will also protect the lives and health of the correctional staff, victim family members, spiritual advisors, attorneys, and others who must witness the executions.”

Updated at 2:58 p.m.