Federal district court judge Jane Magnus-Stinson on Friday evening temporarily halted the execution of white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee, whose execution on Monday would have been the first federal death sentence carried out since 2003.
Magnus-Stinson delayed Lee's execution after the family of Lee's three victims—William and Nancy Mueller, and their eight-year-old daughter Sarah—said the coronavirus would preclude them from witnessing the execution.
The ruling strikes a blow to the Trump administration and to Attorney General William Barr, who has worked since July of 2019 to restart the federal machinery of death following a 16-year hiatus. Lee and accomplice Chevie Kehoe kidnapped, tortured, and killed the Muellers in 1996. Lee's death sentence has long been delayed by the drawn-out federal capital appellate process even before the pandemic struck.
Friday evening's ruling benefits the family of the Muellers, including Nancy's mother Earlene Peterson, 81, who has long protested the fairness of Lee's execution, citing the fact that Kehoe did not receive the same capital sentence—he is serving three life sentences without parole. Peterson and other family members argued that to conduct the execution amid the pandemic would critically limit their rights to see it carried out, forced as they would be to choose between those rights and the risk to their health.
The Department of Justice will appeal the ruling. It has already filed paperwork with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and requested a stay on Magnus-Stinson's order, arguing that the preparations for Lee's death "cannot easily be undone."
Friday's ruling does not apply to two other convicted child killers who are scheduled to be executed by the federal government in the next week. One of those men, Wesley Purkey—who raped and murdered a sixteen-year-old girl—is seeking a separate stay, supported by the ACLU, which argues that his Buddhist spiritual adviser cannot safely attend to him in the execution chamber due to the coronavirus.