In a per curiam opinion issued Tuesday at 2 AM, the US Supreme Court vacated a preliminary injunction that had halted the executions of four federal prisoners sentenced to death for killing children. The ruling cleared the way for the federal government to resume federal executions for the first time in 17 years. US Attorney General William Barr had ordered a return to federal executions last year, ending the almost two-decade hiatus.
The federal prisoners were scheduled to be executed this week and in upcoming weeks. The first execution, of Daniel Lewis Lee, had been scheduled to take place at 4 PM Monday through the use of the drug pentobarbital sodium. Lee had been convicted of the 1996 murders of William and Nancy Mueller, along with Nancy Mueller’s 8-year old daughter Sarah Powell. A jury sentenced him to death in 1999.
On Monday, a US District Judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction blocking all four executions on the grounds that the use of pentobarbital sodium likely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs had not established that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim, which holds an “exceedingly high bar.” In defense of using pentobarbital sodium to carry out executions, the Court said that the drug had been chosen because lethal injections are considered more humane and less painful than other methods of execution. The use of pentobarbital sodium has been upheld by many appeals courts against similar Eighth Amendment challenges, and it has been used in over 100 executions “without incident.” The Supreme Court has also previously upheld its use.
The Court concluded that the plaintiffs had not made the required showing to justify last-minute intervention by a federal court, as last-minute stays “should be the extreme exception, not the norm.”
In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer stated that he had previously described how the current death penalty method could violate the Constitution. He also believed that the death penalty raises other issues regarding the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as Lee had been on death row for over 20 years. This delay, according to Justice Breyer, “inflict[s] severe psychological suffering on inmates and undermine[s] the penological rationale for the death penalty.”
Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was pronounced dead at 8:07 AM Tuesday. According to the Washington Post, his last words were “You’re killing an innocent man.”