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Federal executions resume in the US: The debate, the history

On July 15, Daniel Lewis Lee became the first federal inmate to be executed in the United States in 17 years.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
July 16, 2020 8:07:11 am
Daniel Lewis Lee, federal executions US, US supreme court federal executions, death penalty in the US, death penalty, donald trump, express explained, indian express “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said before he died. (Photo: AP/File)

Hours after the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the resumption of federal executions in a landmark 5-4 overnight ruling, 46-year-old Daniel Lewis Lee became the first federal inmate to be executed in the United States in 17 years.

Lee was put to death by lethal injection Tuesday (July 14) at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said before he died. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

Three more federal executions are slated to take place at the Indiana prison complex over the next two months. In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that all four prisoners — Lee, Dustin Lee Honken, Keith Dwayne and Wesley Ira Purkey — were “sentenced to death for murdering children”.

The Supreme Court’s recent verdict has reignited public debate about death penalty in the United States. Lee’s execution has also laid bare the ideological divide within the US’ highest court.

A dissent written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned the constitutionality of the methods used for executing prisoners. Further, a stinging dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the Supreme Court of fast-tracking the executions of death row inmates, “before any court can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual”.

US President Donald Trump has long been an advocate of the death penalty. In 2019, the Trump administration announced its plans to resume federal executions –– not carried out since 2003.

What are federal executions?

In the United States, depending on the severity of the crime they have committed, people can either be tried at a national level in federal courts, or at a regional level in state courts.

While as many as 22 US states — including New York, Hawaii, and Minnesota — have abolished the death penalty at a regional level, it can still be awarded at a federal level in all 50 states. However, it is rarely used. At present, there are 62 inmates on federal death row, most imprisoned in the Terre Haute prison complex.

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In 1972, the US Supreme Court struck down capital punishment both at the state and federal level. However, it was reinstated by Congress over a decade later, in 1988. With the passing of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, the list of crimes that could lead to federal execution grew substantially.

In 2014, then-US President Barack Obama ordered an investigation into capital punishment procedures and the use of the lethal injection, after an inmate violently convulsed and suffered a heart attack because of the three-drug cocktail used to carry out his death sentence.

US Attorney General William Barr in 2019 ordered the government to abandon the use of the three-drug lethal injection, and to replace it with a single-drug injection.

Several states that are yet to abolish capital punishment have imposed moratoriums on executions. Many leaders, such as the governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon, have said they see moratoriums as an effective way of saving state money in the face of rampant budget cuts.

Why is Daniel Lewis Lee’s execution significant?

Lee and his alleged accomplice Chevie Kehoe were convicted of torturing and killing a family of three — William Mueller, his wife Nancy and his eight-year-old stepdaughter Sarah Powell — in Arkansas in 1996. Lee and Kehoe allegedly murdered the family as part of a larger plot to establish the US as a whites-only nation.

While Kehoe was sentenced to life in prison, Lee was awarded death sentence after being labelled a ‘psychopath’ by prosecutors, who used a famously unreliable tool called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R). According to Lee’s attorneys, he is the only person who has been put on death row solely based on PCL-R results, The Appeal reported.

Lee’s execution, earlier scheduled for Monday, was postponed following an injunction by a lower court in Washington. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling rejected the injunction and cleared the path for several upcoming federal executions, including Lee’s.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes despite the fact that relatives of Lee’s victims have repeatedly appealed to halt the execution. An attorney for the victims’ relatives told CNN that the family was “heartbroken” following the execution. Lee’s family too, had filed a lawsuit in an Indiana Court, demanding a delay as they would not be able to attend the execution on account of Covid-19.

Before Lee, Louis Jones Jr. was put to death in 2003 for the rape and murder of a woman soldier, New York Times reported. Federal executions were rare prior to 2003 too. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37 executions were recorded in 76 years, between 1927 and 2003.

Daniel Lewis Lee, federal executions US, US supreme court federal executions, death penalty in the US, death penalty, donald trump, express explained, indian express Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Monday, July 13. (Photo: AP)

In 2005, several death row inmates filed a lawsuit before a federal court in Washington, in which they challenged the government’s execution protocol, which then involved the use of a three-drug cocktail. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled that death row inmates could challenge the use of lethal injection as a method of execution.

How are these executions carried out?

Last year, the Trump administration announced its plans to employ a single-drug lethal injection, using a sedative called Pentobarbital. The sedative is known to gradually slow brain activity and the nervous system. In smaller doses, it is often use to cure respiratory arrest and as emergency treatment for seizures.

Several inmates, including Lee, challenged the constitutionality of using Pentobarbital. They claimed that its use violates their rights under the eighth amendment of the US constitution, which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

Another problem with Pentobarbital is that it is not readily available in all states. One of its primary manufacturers, a European pharmaceutical company called Lundbeck, has not sold the drug to the US for executions since 2011, NPR reported. States have thus turned to other manufacturers, who have produced similar versions of the drug. There have been instances in the past where the drug has caused pain to inmates.

Many states have also faced criticism for using other drugs like Midazolam, fentanyl citrate, and etomidate, which have all been known to have effects like extreme burning, muscle spasms and seizures.

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What are the arguments against death penalty?

While many human rights activists and lawyers have argued that the death penalty violates an individual’s civil liberties and fundamental rights as citizen of a democracy, some argue that severe punishment will help reduce crime.

Attorney General William Barr, appointed by Trump, had argued that federal executions must be carried out as the government owes it to crime victims and their families.

On its official website, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has made an elaborate case against the death penalty.

“The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law,” the ACLU states in its argument.

Several lawyers and activists have also raised the issue of race — data shows that the American justice system is unfairly skewed against people of colour (POC), particularly African Americans. Since 1976, 43% of the executions have been of people of colour. POCs also form 55% of those currently awaiting execution, according to data obtained by ACLU.

Which countries still have death penalty?

As of 2020, at least 53 countries around the world impose death penalty as punishment. Several methods — including hanging, shooting, electrocution and beheading — are used across the globe.

Last year, according to Amnesty International, the most number of executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt, in that order. Their data says at least 2,307 death sentences were recorded in 2019, a slight decrease from the previous year.

According to a study conducted by Delhi’s National Law University, 755 people have been hanged to death in India since Independence. The most recent death sentence was executed this March, when the four convicts in the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case were hanged in Tihar jail.

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