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Judge blocks first federal execution in 17 years after victims' family raises concerns over virus

A judge on Friday blocked what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years after a petition from the victim's family asked the court to consider their risk to COVID-19 by traveling to attend the execution.

Daniel Lewis Lee, a former white supremacist who robbed and murdered a family of three, including their 8-year-old daughter, was scheduled to be executed on Monday. But now his death sentence has been put on hold after the court granted a preliminary injunction from the family of Lee's victims.

Earlene Peterson lost her daughter Nancy Mueller, and her granddaughter, Sarah Powell, in the crime for which Lee was convicted. She, along with her surviving daughter and granddaughter, filed a petition with the court, explaining that traveling across the country during the pandemic to attend the execution would put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, of the Southern District of Indiana, halted the execution, writing that going forward could irreparably harm Peterson. "The harm to Ms. Peterson ... is being forced to choose whether being present for the execution of a man responsible for the death of her daughter and granddaughter is worth defying her doctor's orders and risking her own life," the judge wrote.

As of Friday, the facility where the execution will take place, U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, has four inmates who are currently positive for the coronavirus, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The court's order says a new date for Lee's execution will be set when the Bureau of Prisons can show "reasonable consideration" for Peterson and her family's right to be present at the execution. But late Friday, the Department of Justice appealed the decision and has asked the court to stay its decision pending a ruling from the 7th Circuit.

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This 1997 photo shows Daniel Lewis Lee. Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP

Peterson, a supporter of President Trump, has been a vocal advocate against the execution of her daughter's killer and has even asked that Mr. Trump commute Lee's sentence to life without parole.

Attorney General William Barr announced he had directed the Bureau of Prisons to restart the enforcement of the death penalty last July.  "The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr said in a statement at the time.

But as one of those families, Peterson said this has never been what she wanted. "Yes, Daniel Lee damaged my life, but I can't believe taking his life is going to change any of that," Peterson said in a video statement in September. "I can't see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way. In fact, it kinda, like, dirties her name because she wouldn't want it and I don't want it. That's not the way it should be."

Peterson and her family are not alone in their belief that Lee was improperly sentenced. In 2014, the federal judge who oversaw Lee's trial and the lead prosecutor on the case, wrote separately to then-Attorney General Eric Holder arguing the disparity in Lee's sentence compared to that of his co-defendant.

Lee's co-defendant, Chevie Kehoe, was the mastermind behind the crime and evidence at their joint trial showed he was the one who murdered 8-year-old Sarah Powell after Lee had refused to do so. However, Kehoe was not sentenced to death, a dichotomy that advocates attribute to Kehoe appearing more "clean-cut" at trial, while Lee, who lost an eye in a fight and has a triskelion tattooed on his neck, looked more "like an outlaw."

Lee's execution was not the only one set to take place this summer. Three other men on death row are still scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, two of which are still planned for next week.

Wesley Ira Purkey, who was convicted in 2003 for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl, and the violent death of an 80-year-old woman, will be executed on Wednesday. His spiritual advisor of 11 years, Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, a 68-year-old Buddhist priest, has filed a similar lawsuit to Peterson's, arguing that he would be at risk of COVID-19 if he attends the execution.

"Rev. Hartkemeyer must decide whether to risk his own life in order to exercise his religious obligation to be present for Mr. Purkey's execution," the lawsuit argues. No ruling has been made yet in this case.

In December, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Trump administration's initial attempt to resume the death penalty after a lower court found the execution method may have violated the Federal Death Penalty Act. But in June, the court cleared the way for the executions to go forward after they denied hearing a last-ditch petition brought by four inmates who aimed to block the use of a new protocol used in their executions.

Earlier this month, more than a thousand faith leaders signed a statement calling on Mr. Trump and the attorney general to halt the executions. "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," their statement said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are 62 federal prisoners currently awaiting execution on death row.

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