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After 17 Years, Bureau Of Prisons Set To Resume Federal Executions

A civil rights advocate calls the scheduled executions of four men ‘appalling’ and a return to a ‘biased, arbitrary, and error-prone’ system.

Prison cell
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The federal government will resume executions next month for the first time since 2003. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced on Monday that he had directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to schedule the executions of four prisoners beginning in mid-July through the end of August.

“The decision by the federal government to move forward scheduling executions is appalling, especially at a moment when the country is clamoring for greater accountability and smarter use of resources from our legal system,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project, wrote to The Appeal in an email. “Decades of the modern death penalty have taught us again and again that it is biased, arbitrary, and error-prone. States and people around the country are increasingly turning away from it.” 

“As always with this administration,” she continued, “it is a distraction from the real issues the country is begging for them to deal with.”

Barr had attempted to restart executions last summer but a federal trial court blocked the move, ruling that the government’s plan for administering lethal injection was “not authorized” by federal law. 

In April, a Washington, D.C., appellate court reversed that order, clearing the way for the BOP to schedule execution dates. Prisoners’ attorneys have since asked the Supreme Court to review that decision. Since it has not yet stepped in, Barr was able to move forward with his request to set the executions. They were set four weeks in advance to allow time for the justices to consider the case, according to a court filing.

Attorneys for the government and prisoners disagree over the use of pentobarbital, a barbituate that is already used to execute prisoners in some death penalty states but has never been used in federal executions. Previously, the BOP used a three-drug combination and announced its switch to pentobarbital last summer following a review of lethal injection procedures ordered by former President Barack Obama. 

Prisoners’ attorneys argue that the use of pentobarbital violates the Clinton-era Federal Death Penalty Act, which they say mandates that the BOP use the same execution protocol used by the state in which the prisoners are sentenced to death. Methods differ by state. 

Like other death penalty states that use pentobarbital, the BOP has refused to disclose its supplier. Such information would be “catastrophic” to the agency’s ability to execute prisoners, attorneys wrote in a June 12 court filing as part of a federal lawsuit filed by BuzzFeed News.

Though federal prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty, executions are rare. Since federal executions restarted in 1988, the U.S. government has executed three men. 

Prisoners scheduled for execution this summer at the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, are Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Keith Dwayne Nelson. All four men were convicted of murdering children. 

Attorneys for the prisoners denounced Barr’s decision in statements on Monday. 

Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, noted that the trial judge, lead prosecutor, and victims’ family are all against his execution. 

An attorney for Purkey, Rebecca Woodman, wrote that her client suffers from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and trauma, leaving him unable to comprehend his upcoming execution. “He no longer has any rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him,” she wrote. 

Honken committed his crimes in Iowa, which abolished the death penalty in 1965. His attorney, Shawn Nolan, wrote that his case was “plagued by misconduct and the ineffectiveness of counsel, who failed to adequately inform Mr. Honken’s jury of his severely dysfunctional background or his resultant mental health problems.”

And Nelson was represented by counsel that his current attorney, Dale Baich, said was inadequate and failed to unearth evidence of brain damage, sexual and physical abuse, and mental illness. “Mr. Nelson’s death sentence is the result of a proceeding that denied him constitutionally guaranteed protections and reveals another deep flaw in the federal death penalty system,” he wrote. 

All four men have exhausted their appeals, according to a Department of Justice press release that promised “additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”

In the release, Barr stated, “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”