Federal Judge Blocks Trump's Plan to Bring Back Death Penalty

US Attorney General William Barr / Getty Images
November 21, 2019

A federal judge on Wednesday night temporarily halted the Trump administration's plans to execute four federal inmates.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled that at least one of the four was likely to succeed on the merits of his challenge to the federal execution protocol previously proposed by the Department of Justice. She temporarily halted the scheduled executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois, and Dustin Lee Honken, NPR reports.

The problem, Chutkan said, was that the department may have run afoul of the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA), which requires federal executions to use the same protocol for execution laid out in the state—in this case, Indiana—where the execution is to take place.

In July, Attorney General William Barr initiated the return of the federal death penalty by proposing an execution protocol that required the use of a single drug, pentobarbital. But Indiana state law requires the use of a three-drug "cocktail": Brevitol, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.

"Given that the FDPA expressly requires the federal government to implement executions in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction, this court finds Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits as to this claim," Chutkan said.

Chutkan, an Obama appointee, rejected the government's argument that its interest in the conclusion of decades-long criminal proceedings obviated its obligations in this case.

Counsel for the condemned men celebrated the ruling Wednesday.

"This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress," defense attorney Shawn Nolan told NPR.

Others, however, were less excited. Sen. Tom Cotton (R.)—whose state of Arkansas is where Lee, a white supremacist, brutally murdered a family of three—denounced the ruling as judicial activism.

"Daniel Lewis Lee has been on death row for 20 years, and now an activist judge has again shielded him from justice and the sentence handed down by a jury of his peers," Cotton wrote on Twitter. "These endless delays make a mockery of our justice system and treat victims with stunning disregard."

The ruling comes as a blow to the Trump administration's project of reinstating the federal death penalty, which has not been carried out since 2003. President Trump, a vocal supporter of capital punishment, has called for the execution of drug dealers and certain hate crime offenders, such as the shooter who killed 20 in El Paso in August. Barr has promised to fast-track the federal death penalty process, a response to the often lengthy appeals process that can make capital cases last decades.