death penalty

U.S. Government Executes First Federal Inmate Since 2003

Indiana State Police block a road leading to the U.S. penitentiary and execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. Photo: TANNEN MAURY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstoc/TANNEN MAURY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstoc

At 8:07 a.m. Tuesday morning, doctors at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, pronounced Daniel Lewis Lee dead. The 47-year-old, convicted of a 1996 triple murder, was the first federal inmate to be executed in 17 years.

“I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” he said before he was executed. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

Lee’s execution came almost a year after Attorney General William Barr announced plans to end the unofficial moratorium on executing federal inmates and seven months after the federal government planned to execute him. Those plans were derailed last November when a judge ruled that he and other death-row inmates had the right to challenge “the legality of their executions” before they were actually executed.

The same judge, Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia, issued an injunction Monday stopping Lee’s execution, which was planned for 4 p.m. She wrote again that legal challenges from Lee and several other men scheduled to be put to death this summer should be allowed to continue. Their challenges hinge on what they argue is the unconstitutional use of the drug pentobarbital in executions. In her order delaying the execution, Chutkan wrote that “scientific evidence” overwhelmingly indicates that the drug is likely to cause “extreme pain and needless suffering.”

The Supreme Court rejected that argument in an early morning 5-4 decision that broke down along ideological lines. The unsigned majority opinion questioned the argument about the dangers of pentobarbital — the drug has become “a mainstay of state executions,” the majority wrote — and said that the case did not merit “last-minute intervention by a federal court.”

Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor each wrote a dissent. “Today’s decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decision making can be,” Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined. “The court forever deprives respondents of their ability to press a constitutional challenge to their lethal injections, and prevents lower courts from reviewing that challenge.”

Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, said in a statement Tuesday that her client was “strapped to a gurney” for four hours as the government waited for permission to execute him. “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,” she said in the statement. “We hope that upon awakening, the country will be as outraged as we are.”

The government is set to execute two other inmates this week and another next month.

U.S. Government Executes First Federal Inmate Since 2003