US executes 3 in first federal death sentences since 2003

The federal government last week carried out its first executions in almost two decades after the US Supreme Court in separate 5-4 rulings turned away last-minute appeals from two condemned inmates’ legal teams. Their executions, and that of a third defendant, were carried out by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14 came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal wrangling and delays. Lee was convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Two days later, the government executed Wesley Ira Purkey, a Kansas man whose lawyers contended he had dementia and was unfit to be executed. On July 17, Dustin Honken, an Iowa chemistry student-turned-meth kingpin convicted of killing five people — including a mother and her two young children — became the third man executed in less than a week.

Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, professed his innocence just before he was executed. “I didn’t do it,” Lee said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.”

His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”

The decision to move forward with the first execution by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing their objections and concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics argued the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.

One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said in a statement it was “shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic. … And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste.” She asserted the execution was carried out despite pending legal motions.

The developments are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Attorney General William Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to provide closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 opposed that idea and argued Lee deserved life in prison. They wanted to be present at the execution to counter any contention it was being done on their behalf.

“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” relative Monica Veillette said.

They noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed white supremacist ringleader who recruited him, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence despite greater culpability in the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas

The victims’ family members won a temporary stay in district court in Indianapolis, but a unanimous panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a preliminary injunction issued July 10 by Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Chief Judge Diane Sykes, writing for the 7th Circuit in Earlene Branch Peterson, et al. v. William Barr, et al., 20-2252, noted the family’s Administrative Procedure Act claims lacked “any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous.”

Sykes also held that the family’s claim was frivolous because they “have no statutory or regulatory right to attend the execution.” The panel further rejected as irrelevant Magnus-Stinson’s conclusion regarding section 16-90-502(e)(1) of the Arkansas Code, a provision governing execution witnesses.

“The judge was wrong to insert it into this case,” Sykes wrote in vacating the injunction.

Separately, Magnus-Stinson also denied Lee’s petition for habeas relief, which the 7th Circuit affirmed in Daniel Lewis Lee v. T. J. Watson, 20-2128. The U.S. Supreme Court also overruled stays in Lee’s case from the D.C. District Court.

In Purkey’s case, the 7th Circuit refused to reconsider its stay of execution in Wesley Ira Purkey v. United States of America, et al., 19–3318. The panel found his claims that he was mentally unfit and had received ineffective assistance of counsel should be heard. The Supreme Court likewise overruled, prompting dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor to write that “proceeding with Purkey’s execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries.”

Purkey was put to death for his conviction in the kidnapping and killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long, before dismembering, burning and dumping her body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who had polio.

Purkey was strapped to a gurney inside the execution chamber. A prison official removed a mask from Purkey’s face and asked him if he wanted to make a final statement. He leaned his head up slightly from the gurney and said: “I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused to Jennifer’s family. I am deeply sorry.”

He also expressed remorse for his own adult daughter’s suffering his actions caused. “I deeply regret the pain I caused to my daughter, who I love so very much,” he said.

His last words were: “This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever. Thank you.”

Honken, of Britt, Iowa, had been on death row since 2005 and was the first Iowan with a death sentence imposed by Iowa jurors to be executed since 1963. Iowa struck the death penalty from state statutes in 1965, but Honken was eligible for the death penalty under U.S. law because he was tried in federal court.

The inmate — known for his verbosity at trial and for making a long statement of his innocence at his sentencing — spoke only briefly, neither addressing victims’ family members nor saying he was sorry. His last words were, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me.”

Honken’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, said his client was “redeemed” and had repented for his crimes. Honken was a devout Catholic who “cared for everyone he came into contact with” in prison, Nolan said.

“There was no reason for the government to kill him, in haste or at all. In any case, they failed. The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone,” Nolan said. “The man they killed today was a human being, who could have spent the rest of his days helping others and further redeeming himself. May he rest in peace.”

Honken, whose crimes struck at the foundation of the U.S. justice system, always seemed the least likely to win a reprieve from the courts.

Mark Bennett, the now-retired federal judge who oversaw Honken’s 2004 trial for the kidnappings and killings, said previously that he generally opposed the death penalty. But if anyone deserved it, he added, it was Honken.

Executions on the federal level have been rare. Prior to last week, the government had put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003. Nevertheless, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

In 2014, after a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

Barr said last July the review had been completed, allowing executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces a three-drug combination with one drug, pentobarbital.

Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019.•

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