AP-The U.S. on Tuesday carried out its first federal execution in almost two decades, killing by lethal injection a man convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal wrangling and delays, revived the debate over capital punishment during a time of widespread social unrest.
It also adds a new chapter to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election
Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, professed his innocence just before he was executed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“I didn’t do it,” Lee said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.”
His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”
The decision to move forward with the first execution by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 — and two others scheduled later in the week — drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about their attending during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.
Critics argued the Trump administration was creating a manufactured urgency for political gain.
One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was “shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic.”
“And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste,” Friedman said in a statement.
But Attorney General William Barr said, “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”
The execution of Lee, who died at 8:07 a.m. EDT, went off after a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early Tuesday in a 5-4 ruling and allowed it to move forward.
Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and provide closure for families and others in the communities where the killings happened.
But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 opposed that idea and argued Lee deserved life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf.
“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,’” relative Monica Veillette said.