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US executes first federal inmate in 17 years

July 14, 2020

The first federal execution in the United States since 2003 has been carried out after the US Supreme Court struck down an injunction based on effectiveness of drugs used in lethal injections.

An empty table to hold prisoners during execution
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Buck

The United States carried out its first federal execution in 17 years on Tuesday in the Midwestern state of Indiana, hours after the Supreme Court overturned an order by a district court that death sentences should be delayed due to the possible effects of the chosen method of execution. 

The Supreme Court decision and execution come after a series of legal battles as the US federal government seeks to revive federal executions.  

Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who was convicted of murdering a family of three in1996 in a plot to build "Aryan People's Republic," had been due for execution on Monday.   

However, a US District Court judge delayed the execution, arguing the use of a single drug, pentobarbital, could cause "extreme pain and needless suffering" and could violate a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

An appeals court had upheld that order before the Supreme Court vacated it. Lee was put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday morning at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.  

Read more: Why is Sri Lanka reinstating death penalty?

More executions after Supreme Court decision  

The top court's 5-to-4 decision overturned an order by US District Judge Tanya Chutkan to allow for legal challenges to drugs selected for use in the lethal injection. 

"The Government has produced competing expert testimony of its own, indicating that any pulmonary edema occurs only after the prisoner has died or been rendered fully insensate," the Supreme Court said in an unsigned ruling referring to the potential side effects of lethal injection drugs. 

Lee was the first federal prisoner to be executed since 2003 and the first since President Donald Trump announced he would resume federal executions.

Two other executions are scheduled this week, and a fourth man is set to be executed in August. 

While the 17-year stay in executions applied to federal prisoners, individual US states have continued carrying out the death penalty for people convicted of crimes in state courts. 

Capital punishment is legal in 28 of the country's 50 states. Seven people were executed in US states in 2020. In 2019, 22 people were executed in the US, the only developed Western nation where capital punishment remains legal. 

ed,wmr/stb (AP, AFP)