The federal government executed its first federal inmate in 17 years on Tuesday, following numerous delays and requests for clemency from the family of the victims.
Daniel Lewis Lee was executed on Tuesday morning and pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. He was executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. An eyewitness told the Indianapolis Star that it took approximately two to three minutes for Lee to die after the lethal injection drugs were administered.
The execution was permitted by the Supreme Court one day after a lower court blocked it due to overwhelming evidence that the drug protocol the government wanted to use causes “extreme pain and needless suffering,” including feelings of panic and the sensation of drowning as fluid accumulates in the lungs.
A Catholic organization opposed to the death penalty condemned the execution as “unnecessary and avoidable.”
“The federal government relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims’ family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives,” said a statement from Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.
Lee was sentenced to death in the 1996 murders of a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl. He insisted upon his innocence, and his final words were, “I didn't do it. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life but I'm not a murderer. You’re killing an innocent man.”
Lee, a onetime white supremacist, along with a man named Chevie Kehoe, was found guilty of robbing William Mueller, a gun dealer in Tilly, Arkansas, of cash, ammunition, and firearms before killing him, his wife Nancy, and stepdaughter Sarah. Kehoe and Lee were part of the Aryan People’s Republic, a white supremacist group which Kehoe reportedly founded. The two reportedly planned to use the stolen goods to establish a whites-only nation.
Kehoe was sentenced to life in prison. Family members of the Muellers had requested that Lee also receive a life sentence.
In June, Nancy Mueller’s mother Earlene Peterson stated that she did not wish to see Lee executed.
“As a supporter of President Trump, I pray that he will hear my message: the scheduled execution of Danny Lee for the murder of my daughter and granddaughter is not what I want and would bring my family more pain,” said Peterson.
Family members of the victims were also concerned about the safety of doing an execution during the coronavirus pandemic, as they were nervous about traveling to a prison and being in a confined room to view the execution. Prisons have been the sites of widespread coronavirus outbreaks.
The last federal execution took place in 2003. In 2014, President Barack Obama ordered a Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the federal death penalty after several botched executions by lethal injection in states including Oklahoma and Ohio.
Last summer, Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons to resume execution of federal prisoners on death row.
Two more federal inmates are set to be executed this week.
On July 7, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, Kentucky, Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City, Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, and Bishop Richard Pates who is the apostolic administrator of Joliet, Illinois, all joined more than 1,000 faith leaders in calling for a stop to scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates.
“As our country grapples with the COVID 19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions,” the faith leaders stated.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2267 on the death penalty was updated in 2018 with a statement from Pope Francis, calling the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”