MASS DEATHS: Execution Spree Over Last Year Highlights Flaws in Federal Death Penalty System

By Anna Zheng and Ankita Joshi 

WASHINGTON DC – Daniel Lewis Lee was sentenced to death and executed for allegedly committing the murders of William Frederick Mueller, Nancy Ann Mueller, and their daughter Sarah Elizabeth Powell in Arkansas 1996.

The murder of the Arkansas family was part of a plot to fund and promote a white separatist organization that his co-defendant, Chevie Kehoe, founded in Washington.

Despite Kehoe being the “mastermind” behind the organization, Lee ultimately was the one who faced a much harsher sentence. Lee was found guilty on three capital murder charges, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit racketeering – the judge sentenced Lee to death on May 14, 1999.

After being convicted by the U.S. federal government, Lee stayed on death row for 21 years until he was scheduled to be executed on July 13, 2020.

The execution was ultimately blocked by a U.S. District Judge, who found unresolved legal issues. However, on July 14, 2020 the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) attempted to start his execution at 4 a.m. despite Lee’s death warrant expiration July 13, 2020 at 12 a.m.

Realizing they had forgotten the stay of execution was still in effect, the federal prosecutors urgently filed pleadings in a Federal Appeals Court to lift the stay. When the stay was lifted at 6:35 a.m., the BOP injected Lee with a fatal dose of pentobarbital without notifying Lee’s counsel prior or if at all.

After Lee’s lawyer, Ruth Friedman, found out that Lee had been executed, she released the following statement to the media: “It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution when counsel for Danny Lee could not be present with him, and when the judges in his case and even the family of his victims urged against it. And 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.”

The execution of Wesley Parker, two days later, followed a similar pattern with the Supreme Court issuing a ruling in the middle of the night.

The U.S. federal government ended its 17-year hiatus between executions after putting Lee to death through lethal injection. Lee’s execution was the first of 13 federal civilian executions set for the course of the next six months and two days.

The U.S. federal government had been on a U.S. federal execution spree.

Ten federal executions in 2020 were the most conducted by the federal government since 1896. Additionally, there had been six federal executions between Donald Trump’s electoral defeat and President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The rate of these executions is especially concerning as “13 federal executions took place during the longest period in 40 years without any state carrying out any execution,” and are an outlier in both a historical context and the contemporary practices of the states.

These executions have also highlighted many flaws that are present within the federal government’s use of capital punishment, including that of the lack of enforcement of legal and constitutional safeguards in capital cases

For example, critics have noted that going forward with these executions during a global pandemic is a “contemptuous disregard for public health.”

In the Terre Haute Community, the executions served as super-spreader events in its federal prison, federal death row, among prison personnel, and any others involved.

For many of the executions, the US Supreme Court has brushed aside any legal obstacles including several federal court rulings that portions of the federal execution protocol were illegal.

As a result, not only did the execution spree bring up concerns about the flaws within the use of capital punishment, it reinforced the concerns about political and racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Issues that were raised by individual prisoners included anti-Native American jury bias, mental competency, intellectual disability, youth, and disproportionate sentences imposed upon co-defendants of varying culpability.

However, the Supreme Court did not hold hearings on any of those issues.

Concurrently, five of the six prisoners executed after the election were Black, and only African Americans were executed for interracial crimes.

Other anomalies in the execution spree that were raised included:

  • The first execution of a woman by the federal government in 67 years
  • The execution of two prisoners accused of murders committed in their teens, the two youngest offenders executed by the federal government in 68 year
  • The first time in U.S. history the federal government executed a Native American for an offense committed against fellow tribe members on tribal lands
  • Executions of two intellectually disabled prisoners, despite no judicial consideration of their cases under clinically appropriate standards for assessing the disability
  • Leaving one prisoner strapped to the gurney for four hours while federal prosecutors filed pleadings to vacate his stay of execution
  • Executing two prisoners who had contracted COVID-19

On July 1, 2021, the Biden administration announced a moratorium to review the Trump administration’s death-penalty regulations.

Advocates have voiced their support for the moratorium, but have also urged Biden to act upon his campaign pledge to abolish the death penalty.

About The Author

Anna Zheng is a fourth year at UC Davis from Sonoma, California. She is studying International Relations and Economics with the intent of pursuing a J.D. degree in the future. Ultimately, she hopes to pursue a career in consulting, finance, intellectual property or business immigration law.

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