WASHINGTON (AFP) - A former white supremacist convicted of the 1996 murders of a family of three was put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday (July 14) in the first federal execution in the United States in 17 years.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was pronounced dead at 8:07am (8.07pm Singapore time) at Terre Haute prison in the Midwestern state of Indiana, the Justice Department said.
Lee was the first of three federal inmates scheduled to die this week after President Donald Trump ordered a resumption of capital punishment at the federal level.
Lee and another man, Chevie Kehoe, were convicted in Arkansas in 1999 of the murders of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah.
According to prosecutors, the pair robbed Mueller to steal cash and guns to finance the founding of a white supremacist "Aryan Peoples Republic" in the Pacific Northwest.
"After robbing and shooting them with a stun gun, Lee duct-taped plastic bags around their heads, weighed down each victim with rocks, and drowned the family in the Illinois bayou,"
Attorney General William Barr said. "Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved."
Lee - who had since renounced his white supremacist beliefs, according to his lawyers - was sentenced to death while Kehoe received life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lee, who was originally from Oklahoma, proclaimed his innocence in his final statement, according to a local newspaper, the Indianapolis Star.
"You're killing an innocent man," the paper quoted Lee as saying. "I bear no responsibility for the deaths of the Mueller family."
Lee's execution had been scheduled for Monday but was temporarily halted by a judge to allow for legal challenges to the drug that was to be used to put the federal inmates to death.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the single drug, pentobarbital, may cause "extreme pain and needless suffering" - and violate a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, lifted the lower court order overnight, however, and cleared the way for the federal executions.
According to Ruth Friedman, one of Lee's lawyers, he was strapped to a gurney for four hours while the final legal appeals were dealt with.
"It is shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic," Friedman said, 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," she said.
Earlene Peterson, 81, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed, had campaigned against Lee's death sentence, saying she wanted him to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Peterson and relatives of other victims had filed a lawsuit seeking to delay the execution, arguing that it was dangerous for them to travel to Terre Haute to witness the execution because of the coronavirus pandemic.
An appeals court dismissed the suit on Sunday and it was also rejected by the Supreme Court.
There have been just three federal executions since the death penalty was reinstated on the federal level in 1988, and more than 1,000 US religious leaders urged Trump last week to abandon plans to resume them.
Trump, who faces a tough reelection battle in November, has called for stepped-up use of capital punishment, especially for drug traffickers and killers of police officers.
Only a handful of US states, mainly in the conservative South, still actively carry out executions. In 2019, 22 people were put to death.
Most crimes are tried under state laws, but federal courts handle some of the most serious offenses, including terror attacks, hate crimes and racketeering cases.
Among the most notable recent federal executions was that of Timothy McVeigh, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2001 for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma that killed 168 people.
Two other federal executions are scheduled for this week.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, is to be put to death on Wednesday for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl while Dustin Lee Honken, 52, is to be executed on Friday for five murders including those of two girls aged 10 and six.