TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (NEXSTAR) — The federal government plans to resume federal executions next week for the first time in more than 15 years.
Three men are scheduled to die by lethal injection in one week at an Indiana prison beginning Monday. Each received the death penalty for crimes that included the murders of children, a violation of federal law. A fourth inmate at the prison is set for execution in August.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Bureau of Prisons officials insist they will be able to conduct the executions safely and have been holding practice drills for months.
The decision to go ahead with the executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn’t high on the list of American concerns right now, when more than 130,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States and the unemployment rate is 11%.
“Why would anybody who is concerned about public health and safety want to bring in people from all over the country for three separate executions in the span of five days to a virus hot spot?” questioned Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan organization that collects information on capital punishment.
“The original execution plan last year appeared to be political. And the current plan eliminates any doubt about that,” he said.
Attorney General William Barr has denied that politics played a role in the decision last year to resume executions, which ended an informal freeze on the imposition of federal capital punishment. Barr has said the government has an obligation to carry out the sentences, including the death penalty, that are imposed by courts, and that the Justice Department owes it to the families of the victims and others in their communities to do so.
“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month.
Most Democrats oppose it. By contrast, President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier. Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
Inmates set to die
Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old, is the first inmate set for execution Monday. Prosecutors say the killings were part of a plot to establish a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Family members of Lee’s victims have asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus puts them at risk if they travel to attend the execution. They have asked that the execution be put off until a treatment or a vaccine is available for the virus.
Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, is set for execution Wednesday. Purkey raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio.
Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children, is set to die Friday.
Keith Dwayne Nelson, scheduled to be executed in August, was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raping her in a forest behind a church, then strangling her.
Three of the men had been set to be put to death last year when Barr first announced that the federal government would resume executions.
The effort was put on hold by a trial judge. The federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the trial judge’s order. The Supreme Court then refused to halt the process. A lower court could still stop them from happening.
Inside the Indiana prison
The executions will take place at the federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. One inmate there has died from COVID-19, but the federal prison system has struggled to combat the coronavirus. There have been no coronavirus cases in the special unit where the four men are being held, officials said.
The prison has been around since the 1940s and is much larger than it was 80 years ago.
Former guard Kevin Beaver described the prison’s death row as “a very choreographed area.” He said each cell contains a bed, desk, shower and toilet. He also noted that the area, officially known as “the Confinement Unit,” is library quiet.
Beaver worked in the prison from 1995 to 2005. Part of that time, he was a guard on death row.
“Anytime they come out, they’re completely restrained, and there’s multiple people supervising that activity,” he said.
Lethal injection drug debate
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. Last July, Barr said the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Pentobarbital was used Wednesday night in the U.S.’s first execution since the coronavirus pandemic. Texas executed Billy Joe Wardlow for a 1993 robbery and murder. He was pronounced dead 24 minutes after the lethal injection.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.