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Federal Executions Of Prisoners To Resume After Nearly 20 Years, Department Of Justice Orders

The move paves the way for the Donald Trump administration to resume executions after a nearly 20-year freeze on capital punishment at the federal level.

By Dorian Geiger

New dates have been set for the executions of four federal death-row inmates — the first in nearly two decades — the Department of Justice announced on Monday.

Attorney General William Barr has ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of four prisoners in July and August. If carried out, the four men could become the first batch of federal prisoners executed since 2003.

“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement. 

The four men condemned to the death chamber — Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Keith Dwayne Nelson — are convicted child killers, the government said.  

The DOJ’s announcement comes after a fractured, months-long court battle — to reinstate the death penalty at the federal level. 

Last July, Barr approved the use of a new method involving lethal injection. Previously, a mixture of three drugs had been used to execute inmates; this formula was replaced with pentobarbital, a single drug. The method is used in a number of states including Missouri, Georgia, and Texas.

Honey, Purkey, and Lee, as well as two other inmates, were originally scheduled to be executed in December 2019. However, a trial judge in D.C. put the executions on hold after lawyers for the men said the government was sidestepping protocol in an effort to quickly carry out the death sentences, the New York Times reported. An appeals court threw the order out in April, allowing the executions to proceed. 

However, some death penalty experts have raised renewed concerns that the federal government is rushing the proceedings. 

“After 17 years, in which no administration, Democrat or Republican, has sought to carry out executions — this administration has now twice sought to initiate executions by carrying out three in the space of five days,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Oxygen.com

He described Barr’s announcement as a “highly irresponsible” and “politicized” decision, claiming the cases of the four men set to be put to death are not of national interest. Dunham described the planned executions of the four men — all convicted child killers — as “politically salacious.” 

“This is clearly not a process that is considering the rule of law,” Dunham added. “This is a process that is considering political expediency.”

The four death row inmates had previously exhausted their appeals, federal officials said.

“The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws,” Barr added. “ We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Lee, whose execution is set for July 13, murdered a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, the DOJ said. After robbing them with a stun gun, he wrapped plastic bags around their heads, sealed them with duct tape, weighted them down with rocks, and hurled them into an Arkansas river. He was convicted in 1999. 

Purkey raped, mutilated, and burned the body of a 16-year-old girl before dumping her in a lagoon, authorities said. He also clubbed an elderly woman to death with a hammer. His execution is scheduled for July 15.

In 2003, Honken was found guilty of gunning down five people, including two men slated to testify against him, as well as a single mother and her two young daughters. 

Nelson, the last of the four death row prisoners scheduled to be executed, will be put to death on Aug. 28. He kidnapped a girl who was rollerblading, and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling her with a wire, the DOJ said. He was sentenced to death in 2001.

The executions are scheduled to take place at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute in Indiana. The DOJ indicated they intend to schedule further executions in the near future.

Lawyers representing some of the condemned men lamented the decision.

“The devastating combined effects of schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and a lifetime of trauma have left Wes Purkey unable to comprehend why the federal government plans to execute him," Rebecca Woodman, Purkey's lawyer, told Oxygen.com. "While he long ago accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row, he no longer has any rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him."

Six prisoners have been put to death in 2020, the Death Penalty Information Center reported. Walter Barton, who was executed in May, became the first death row inmate to be put to death during the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Innocence Project. Nathaniel Woods was executed in March; Woods, a Black man, was found guilty of luring Birmingham police officers into a fatal shootout in 2004, despite never pulling the trigger.

A total of six executions were scheduled for this month alone; all of those have been vacated, stayed, or rescheduled.