The judge blocks federal executions; administration calls

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HIGH LAND, IND. – A US district judge on Monday ordered a further postponement of federal executions, a few hours before the date of the first lethal injection in a federal prison in Indiana. The Trump administration immediately appealed to a higher court, demanding that the executions move forward. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said there are still legal issues to be resolved and that “the public is not served by a short circuit of a legitimate judicial process”. The executions, pushed by the administration, would be the first carried out at the federal level since 2003.

Chutkan said the detainees have presented evidence that the government’s plan to use only pentobarbital for the execution “poses a significant unconstitutional risk of severe pain”.

Chutkan said that the detainees had produced evidence that during other executions, prisoners who were administered pentobarbital suffered from “flash pulmonary edema”, which she said interferes with breathing and produces feelings of drowning and strangulation.

Detainees identified alternatives, including the use of an opioid or anti-anxiety medication at the start of the procedure or a completely different method, an execution squad, said Chutkan.

The Department of Justice immediately appealed to the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia circuit.

The new suspension of executions came a day after a Federal Court of Appeal lifted a suspension on the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, of the Yukon, Oklahoma, which is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. EDT Monday at Federal Land Prison Upper, Indiana. He was convicted in Arkansas for the 1996 murder of arms dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy, and his 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell.

“The government has attempted to continue these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the lawyers for the men threatened with federal execution.

The execution was to be carried out after a federal court of appeal lifted an injunction that was put in place last week after some family members of the victims claimed they would be at high risk on Sunday. for the coronavirus if they were to attend the execution. The family appealed to the Supreme Court on Monday.

The decision to go ahead with the execution – and two more planned for later this week – during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and ravages prisons in country, has drawn the attention of civil rights groups and the families of Lee’s victims.

Critics argue that the government is creating a useless emergency that is fabricated for political gain. It is also likely to add a new edge to the national conversation on criminal justice reform in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

Demonstrators against the death penalty began to rally in the city on Monday. Organizer Abraham Bonowitz drove a van across Terre Haute with a sign on the side of a trailer that said, “Stop the executions!” Some who saw him gave him a boost, while others gave him his middle finger, said Bonowitz in a telephone interview.

Due to coronavirus problems, Bonowitz said his group, Death Penalty Action, did not encourage others to show up. A few dozen protesters were not expected to join him, and they are all told to wear masks, he said.

“It’s symbolic,” said Bonowitz of the protests. “We’re just here to say it’s wrong. ”

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Attorney General William Barr said that the Department of Justice has a duty to carry out court sentences, including the death penalty, and to bring a feeling of closure to the victims and to the communities where the killings took place.

But the parents of those killed by Lee strongly oppose the idea. They wanted to be present to counter any claim that it was being made on their behalf.

“For us, it’s about being there and saying, ‘It’s not done on our behalf; we don’t want that, ”said a relative, Monica Veillette.

Relatives would travel thousands of kilometers and witness the execution in a small room where the social distancing recommended to prevent the spread of the virus is practically impossible. A lawyer for family members who opposed the execution said they did not go to Indiana on Monday morning.

The federal prison system has struggled in recent months to contain the explosion in the number of coronavirus cases behind bars. There are currently four confirmed cases of coronavirus among inmates at Terre Haute prison, according to federal statistics, and one inmate has died.

Barr said he thought the Prisons Office could “carry out these executions without being in danger.” The agency has put in place a number of additional measures, including temperature controls and the requirement for witnesses to wear masks.

But on Sunday, the Ministry of Justice revealed that a staff member involved in the preparation of the execution had tested positive for the coronavirus, but said that he was not in the execution room and no ‘had contacted someone from the specialized team sent to manage the execution.

The three men who were to be executed this week were to be put to death when Barr announced that the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment while the matter was out of the public domain. A fourth man is expected to be killed in August.

Federal executions have been rare, and the government has only killed three accused since the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988 – most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for kidnapping, rape and the murder of a young female soldier in 1995..

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a major review of the death penalty and the problems of lethal injection drugs.

The Attorney General said last July that the Obama era review was completed, paving the way for the resumption of executions.

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Associated Press editors Colleen Long and Mark Sherman in Washington and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., Contributed to this report

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