Attorney General William Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions starting in December for five men, all accused of murdering children. Although the death penalty remains legal in 30 states, executions on the federal level are rare.
“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.
The move is likely to stir up fresh interest in an issue that has largely lain dormant in recent years, adding a new front to the culture battles that President Donald Trump already is waging on matters such as abortion and immigration in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
Most Democrats oppose capital punishment. Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it.
By contrast, Trump has spoken often — and sometimes wistfully — about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
He’s suggested repeatedly that the U.S. might be better off if it adopted harsh drug laws like those embraced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug suspects have been killed by police.
Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY” following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. “If the punishment is strong,” he wrote then, “the attacks on innocent people will stop.”
Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Trump blasted as “outrageous.”
The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.
Executions on the federal level have long been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
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.
That review has been completed, Barr said Thursday, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.
Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
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.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said he was concerned the process for resuming executions was rushed.
“The federal government hasn’t carried out any executions in 15 years and so that raises serious questions about the ability to carry out the executions properly,” he said.
There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.
About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.
The inmates who will be executed are: Danny Lee, who was convicted of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Lezmond Mitchell, who beheaded a 63-year-old woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Alfred Bourgeois, who tortured, molested and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death; and Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people, including two children.
The federal government would join eight states that have executed inmates or are planning to do so this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas is far and away the leading state when it comes to using the death penalty, with 563 executions since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1977 after a 10-year pause.
In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has banned the execution of people who are intellectually disabled or were under 18 when they killed someone. But even as the number of people who are sentenced to death and are executed has declined steadily for two decades, the justices have resisted any wholesale reconsideration of the constitutionality of capital punishment.
The five-justice conservative majority, which includes Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s two high court picks, has complained about delaying tactics employed by lawyers for death row inmates.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Mark Sherman, Elana Schor and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
A look at 5 federal death row inmates facing execution
WASHINGTON (AP) 07/25 — The Justice Department announced Thursday that it will resume executing death row prisoners for the first time in nearly two decades.
At the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the federal Bureau of Prisons has scheduled the executions of five inmates being held on death row at USP Terre Haute, a high-security penitentiary in Indiana.
Here’s a look at the inmates who are scheduled to be executed beginning in December.
Danny Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, was convicted in the 1996 deaths of an Arkansas family as part of a plot to set up a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Lee and an accomplice, Chevie Kehoe, were convicted of killing gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy Mueller, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, and stealing guns and cash.
Lee’s attorney, Morris Moon, said his client’s case “exemplifies many of the serious flaws in the federal death penalty system” and that “executing him would be a grave injustice.” Moon says there was more evidence against Kehoe — described by federal prosecutors at the time as the leader of the plot — but he received a life sentence.
Lee was convicted in 1999 in Arkansas. A federal judge denied Lee’s request for a new trial in February, but noted that evidence presented by his attorneys “is reasonably likely” to have led to a different sentence.
He is the first inmate scheduled to be executed, on Dec. 9.
Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo man, stabbed a 63-year-old woman to death in 2003 and then forced her 9-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her grandmother’s lifeless body as he drove about 40 miles, before he slit the young girl’s throat.
Their beheaded, mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave on the reservation. Mitchell stole the woman’s car and later robbed a trading post in Red Valley, Arizona.
He’s scheduled to be executed two days after Lee.
WESLEY IRA PURKEY
The Bureau of Prisons plans to execute Wesley Ira Purkey on Dec. 13. He was convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl before dismembering, burning and then dumping the teen’s body in a septic pond.
Prosecutors said he was also convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio.
Purkey, who is from Kansas, is slated to be executed on Dec. 13.
Prosecutors say Alfred Bourgeois tortured, sexually molested, and then beat his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death. Court records say Bourgeois repeatedly beat the young girl and punched her in the face, whipped her with an electrical cord and beat her with a belt so hard that it broke. He also allegedly burned her feet with a cigarette lighter and hit her in the head with a baseball bat until her head swelled.
He was convicted in 2004 of several charges, including murder, and was sentenced to death. He’s scheduled to be executed on Jan. 13.
DUSTIN LEE HONKEN
Dustin Lee Honken was convicted in 2004 in connection with the killings of five people as part of a plan to thwart a federal investigation into his drug operation.
The victims included two men who became informants and were going to testify against him, the girlfriend of one of the informants and her two young daughters, ages six and 10.
Honken was convicted in federal court in Iowa in 2004 and is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 15.
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