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U.S. Government Carries Out The First Execution Of A Federal Prisoner in 17 Years

A late-night Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, despite his claims of innocence and his attorneys’ belief that DNA testing could show he was wrongly convicted.

In this Oct. 31 1997, file photo, Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for murder in Russellville, Ark.
Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP, File

U.S. Government Carries Out The First Execution Of A Federal Prisoner in 17 Years

A late-night Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, despite his claims of innocence and his attorneys’ belief that DNA testing could show he was wrongly convicted.


The federal government has executed Daniel Lewis Lee, resuming executions for the first time in 17 years. 

Lee, 47, was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. Eastern time today at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, reported the Indianapolis Star, which had a reporter present. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” he said in his final statement, according to a pool report. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

An appellate court had stopped the execution—originally scheduled for Monday at 4 p.m.—late last night, ruling that questions over the constitutionality of lethal injection drugs needed further litigation. In a 5-4 vote at 2 a.m. today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the issue had already been litigated and the government could proceed. All four liberal justices dissented. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that “the resumption of federal executions promises to provide examples that illustrate the difficulties of administering the death penalty consistent with the Constitution. … The solution may be for this Court to directly examine the question whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.” 

In a statement on Tuesday, Lee’s attorney, Ruth Freidman, said Lee was strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber for four hours as the government moved to lift a final legal hurdle to execute him. That last challenge was cleared by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at 7:21 a.m. Eastern time and Lee was quickly executed without notification of his attorneys, she said. 

“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,” wrote Friedman. “We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are.”

Tim Evans, the reporter for the Indianapolis Star who witnessed the execution, told The Appeal that after the Supreme Court lifted the stay, he received a text message from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) informing him that the execution would proceed. He recalled that an official whose designation he could not remember read Lee what he believed to be a death warrant before carrying out the execution. 

The death warrant has raised questions from legal experts who have doubts about the legality of the execution. Lee’s death warrant, which allowed the government to execute him, expired at midnight on Tuesday and it is unclear whether the BOP obtained a new one. An agency spokesperson did not answer questions from The Appeal about the warrant. 

“This looks like an illegal execution,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The Appeal. He cited the federal code, which says that a new date “shall be designated promptly” by the director of the Bureau of Prisons if a stay is lifted after the designated execution date. In Lee’s case, the stay was lifted at 7:21 a.m. and officials opened the curtains to the execution chamber at 7:46 a.m., revealing Lee lying on the gurney with IV lines in his arms, according to witnesses. 

Dunham added, “This execution isn’t about justice and it wasn’t about the rule of law. It was about power and what the administration believed it could get away with doing.”

The BOP announced Lee’s death in a statement this morning, writing that he had killed an 8-year-old girl and her parents in 1996, though there was testimony from the government’s witnesses at trial that his co-defendant, Chevie Kehoe, had killed the child. Kehoe, who prosecutors described as the ringleader who had planned the killings to promote and fund a white separatist organization, was sentenced to life without parole. Lee has since renounced his ties to that movement. He has always said he is innocent.

His attorneys have argued in appeals that Lee was sentenced to death while Kehoe was not because of testimony that Lee was a “psychopath” who would be a danger to others in prison should he be allowed to live. The centerpiece of the government’s argument was a psychological checklist that is notoriously unreliable and has since been disavowed by the government expert who administered it. It is generally no longer used in federal capital cases and Lee was the only person on federal death row whose sentence relied on it, his attorneys say. 

They also alleged in court filings that the government withheld crucial information that would have cast doubt on the reliability of Lee’s conviction. Last week, U.S. District Judge Judge Lee P. Rudofksy denied Lee’s request to compare DNA from a hair believed to be connected to the murder with other suspects in the case. His attorneys had said that testing could prove that Lee was not involved in the killings. 

The victims’ family has long opposed Lee’s execution and in 1999 asked the Department of Justice to remove the death penalty as an option for punishment after Kehoe was sentenced to life without parole. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder refused. Monica Veillette, a relative of the victims, told The Appeal earlier this month that the victims would not have wanted Lee to be executed and her family’s pleas to spare Lee’s life had been ignored. 

Veillette and her family filed a lawsuit last week alleging that the government had put their lives at “grave risk” by scheduling the execution during a pandemic, making it difficult or impossible to attend as witnesses. The DOJ dismissed the family’s argument as “frivolous” in its response. 

The trial judge and lead prosecutor have also expressed doubts about the case. They both wrote letters as part of Lee’s 2014 clemency application to President Barack Obama urging the DOJ to commute his sentence. Obama commuted two death sentences before he left office.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr hailed Lee’s execution. “Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved,” he said in a statement. “The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”

The DOJ is scheduled to execute two more men this week. Wesley Ira Purkey is set to be killed on Wednesday while Dustin Lee Honken is scheduled for execution on Friday. Both have litigation pending in their cases.