According to Reuters, Attorney General Bill Barr vowed last summer that his Department of Justice (DOJ) “would resume carrying out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row.” And on Sunday, an appeals court took a step in the right direction with a ruling that confirmed the government can move forward with the death penalty — even amid concerns over COVID-19.
After 17 years without a federal execution, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned on Sunday a lower court’s decision that would have blocked the execution of 47-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported.
A death sentence
According to Reuters, Lee was on death row for the 1996 killings of “an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife, and [their] 8-year-old daughter.”
“Prosecutors say Lee was a member of a white supremacist group that murdered” the family, Reuters reported, “then dumped their bodies in a swamp.”
At the time, “some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence,” Reuters noted. Still, Lee was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to death.
A successful appeal
That sentence was set to be carried out this week, but according to Fox News, a district judge in Indiana ruled Friday that Lee’s execution would be put on hold after the family of his victims said they would be prevented from exercising “their lawful rights to attend the execution of Lee” because of concerns over COVID-19.
Fox noted that multiple inmates at the federal prison in Terre Haute, where Lee is set to be executed, have tested positive for the disease, and one has died. A staffer at the jail who Fox said was “involved in preparing for the execution” also tested positive, which prompted the family to seek the delay.
But Barr’s DOJ successfully argued in an appeal over the weekend that the victims’ family doesn’t actually have a legal right to be there for Lee’s death. In its ruling, the 7th Circuit found that the family’s lawsuit lacked “any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous,” Fox News reported.
The family subsequently vowed to take the matter to the Supreme Court, according to Fox.
In the meantime, the matter has hit another roadblock: a separate court ruling saying that Lee and three other federal inmates “can pursue their claim that the federal government’s plan to use a single drug will cause severe pain and needless suffering” was handed down Monday, according to NBC News. It remains unclear when and if those claims will be heard in court, but it’s likely the execution won’t take place until that happens.
Barr, for his part, has made clear that he’ll keep fighting to resume federal executions despite the pandemic. He told the Associated Press in a recent interview that he thinks the government can “carry out these executions without being at risk,” according to Fox.
If federal judges keep siding against him, however, it will only be harder for Barr to ensure justice is served.