TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – A U.S. district judge on Monday ordered a new delay in federal executions hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out at a federal prison in Indiana. The Trump administration immediately appealed to a higher court, asking that the executions move forward.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said there are still legal issues to resolve and that "the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process." The executions, pushed by the administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.
Chutkan said the inmates have presented evidence showing that the government's plan to use only pentobarbital to carry out the executions "poses an unconstitutionally significant risk of serious pain."
The judge also said the inmates produced evidence that, in other executions, prisoners who were given pentobarbital suffered "flash pulmonary edema," which she said interferes with breathing and produces sensations of drowning and strangulation.
The inmates have identified alternatives, including the use of an opioid or anti-anxiety drug at the start or a different method altogether, a firing squad, Chutkan said.
The Justice Department appealed to the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Bureau of Prisons continued with preparations to move forward should the stay be lifted. The man slated for execution, Daniel Lewis Lee, has had access to social visitors, has visited with his spiritual adviser and has been allowed to receive mail, prison officials said. He's been under constant staff supervision. The witnesses for Lee are expected to include family members, his lawyers and his spiritual adviser.
The new delay came a day after a federal appeals court lifted a hold on the execution of Lee, of Yukon, Okla., that was scheduled for 4 p.m. EDT on Monday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
"The government has been trying to plow forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol," said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for inmates facing federal execution.
The Lee execution was to be carried out after a federal appeals court lifted an injunction on Sunday that had been put in place last week after some members of the victims' family argued they would be put at high health risk if they had to travel to attend. The family on Monday appealed to the Supreme Court.
The decision to move forward with the execution — and two others scheduled later in the week — during a global pandemic that is ravaging prisons nationwide drew scrutiny from civil rights groups, as well as the family of Lee's victims.
Anti-death penalty protesters began gathering in Terre Haute on Monday.