Execution staffer tests positive for COVID-19

AP file photo/Michael ConroyThis is view of the execution facility at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, shown here in a 2001 file photo. The execution set for Monday remains in question, as an Indiana-based federal judge has ordered a stay, but the Justice Department filed papers fighting that order this weekend in both the federal appeals court and before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The federal Bureau of Prisons said Sunday that a staff member involved in preparing for the first federal executions in nearly two decades has tested positive for coronavirus.

The Justice Department said the development will not mean an additional delay in the government’s timetable.

The government said the worker had not been in the execution chamber and had not come into contact with anyone on the specialized team sent to the prison to handle the execution.

The agency made the disclosure in court filings in response to lawsuits that have sought to halt executions, which are scheduled to resume Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Terre Haute.

An attorney for the Bureau of Prisons said the staff member learned on Wednesday that the staffer had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The staff member immediately left work and notified the bureau on Saturday about the positive test, according to the court filing.

The staff member did not wear a mask at all times during meetings with other Bureau of Prisons employees and other law enforcement officials in the days before learning of the exposure, the agency said.

The bureau says the staff member did not enter the execution facility or the prison’s command center and left the facility before the dozens of Bureau of Prisons employees who are part of the team handling the executions arrived. The bureau said it started contact tracing to identify other staff members who may have had contact.

The disclosure comes as the Justice Department is fighting to proceed with the first federal execution since 2003. 

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief of the U.S. Southern District of Indiana, has halted the execution of Daniel Lee, which had been scheduled for Monday, after concerns were raised by the victims’ family that they would be at high risk for the virus if they had to travel to attend the execution.

The Justice Department is asking a federal appeals court to overturn that ruling and immediately allow the execution to move forward. Two other executions are also scheduled for later in the week -- although the execution set for Wednesday has been at least temporarily stayed by an appeals court.

The Justice Department also filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Sunday afternoon seeking to vacate the injunction and allow the execution to move forward — even though the appeals court didn’t issue its ruling.

“For the duration of the execution or until a negative test is obtained, BOP will ensure that those staff members identified as having had contact with the infected staff member do not have contact with the inmates scheduled for execution, ministers of record, witnesses of the execution, attorneys, or press,” the filing said.

In response to the filing, an attorney for the victims' family said that while the employee may not have been in the execution chamber or in direct contact with the execution team, “it does not account for the many people that the staff person encountered before learning of his positive test.”

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