The first federal execution in 17 years is set to go ahead on Monday after a U.S. appeals court overturned a lower court injunction, saying a lawsuit by the victims’ family that had put the execution on hold had no legal standing.
Daniel Lewis Lee was convicted in the killing of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996. But some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence. He is due to be put to death by lethal injection at the U.S. Justice Department’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.
His execution had been blocked on Friday by a federal judge after some of the victims’ relatives sued, saying they feared that attending could expose them to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
As the number of coronavirus infections rises in about 40 states, the Bureau of Prisons said on Sunday that a staff member involved in preparations for the resumption of federal executions had tested positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit filed against the Justice Department in federal court in Indianapolis sought to block the execution until the pandemic had passed. U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ordered the department to delay the execution until it could show it was upholding the plaintiffs’ right to attend the execution without risking their health.
The government appealed and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday overturned the injunction, saying no federal statute or regulation gave the victims the right to attend the execution.
Attorney General William Barr said last July that the Justice Department would resume carrying out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row.
He originally scheduled five executions for last December, but had to delay them while long-running lawsuits challenging the government’s lethal-injection protocol played out.
An appeals court overturned that injunction in April, and Barr announced new execution dates for July and August of four inmates, all men convicted of murdering children: Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson.
Prosecutors say Lee was a member of a white supremacist group that murdered an Arkansas gun dealer, his wife and 8-year-old daughter, then dumped their bodies in a swamp. He was convicted in 1999 of multiple offenses including murder in aid of racketeering.