The U.S. government carried out its first execution in 17 years on Tuesday, putting to death convicted murderer Daniel Lee over objections by his victims’ relatives after the Supreme Court cleared the way with an overnight ruling.
Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. EDT (1207 GMT), U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said by phone.
His death marked the culmination of a three-year effort by Republican President Donald Trump’s administration to resume capital punishment, ending a de facto moratorium by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, amid legal challenges and difficulties obtaining lethal-injection drugs.
“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,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
The execution by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana, was preceded by a flurry of legal challenges in multiple federal courts.
It had previously been scheduled for Monday at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT), but was again delayed, with hours to spare, when a U.S. District Court in Washington ordered the U.S. Justice Department to delay Lee’s and three other executions scheduled for July and August to allow the continuation of legal challenges by death row inmates.
In issuing her injunction, Judge Tanya Chutkan had said Lee and other condemned men were likely to succeed in their argument that the new lethal-injection protocol announced last year that uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, would cause an unconstitutional degree of pain and suffering.
Her order was affirmed overnight by an appellate court.
But at 2:10 a.m. (0610 GMT), the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote cleared the way for federal executions to resume, ruling that Lee and other condemned men’s challenges to the execution protocol did not justify “last-minute” intervention by federal courts.
“Last-minute stays like that issued this morning should be the extreme exception, not the norm,” the Supreme Court wrote in its ruling.
Ruth Friedman, one of the public defenders who had represented Lee, rebuked the Department of Justice for what she described as a rushed process, saying it had not notified Lee’s counsel of his rescheduled execution.
In a statement, 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. We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are.”
Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, wrote in an email that the Bureau of Prisons had notified Lee’s counsel soon after the Supreme Court ruling, but did not give further details.
Lee was convicted for his role in the killing of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996. But some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence, while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.
The victims’ relatives unsuccessfully sued last week to delay the execution until the coronavirus pandemic had passed, saying they feared attending would risk their safety.
Strapped to a gurney before his death, Lee was asked if had any last words, according to a media witness in the viewing chamber.
“I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said, according to the media witness, who issued a report for other news outlets. “You’re killing an innocent man.”
As the drug was being administered, Lee raised his head to look around, and his breathing appeared to become labored, according to the pool report. Soon after, Lee’s chest was no longer moving, his lips turned blue and his fingers became ashy.
Two unnamed Bureau of Prisons officials and Lee’s spiritual adviser could be seen inside the execution chamber.
The Justice Department has scheduled two more executions of convicted child killers this week: Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday and Dustin Honken on Friday. An appeals court has temporarily stayed Purkey’s execution date, and it remained unclear whether it would proceed.