Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Delayed for now: Abraham Bonowitz, center, co-director of Death Penalty Action, announces how a U.S. district court judge has ordered a new delay in federal executions as fellow death penalty opponents celebrate on Monday near the Federal Correctional Complex along Indiana 63.

As opponents of the first federal execution since 2003 gathered this morning near U.S. Penitentiary Terre-Haute, the mood soon changed from extremely somber to a cheer and clapping.

The group learned U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered a new delay in federal executions just hours before the first lethal injection was scheduled to be carried out -- at 4 p.m. today -- at the federal prison.

The Justice Department immediately appealed to a higher court.

Chutkan said there are still legal issues to resolve and that “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process."

The new hold on executions came only a day after a federal appeals court lifted a hold on the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma.

Lee was convicted in Arkansas of the 1996 killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

"It is always a good day when there are no executions. This is how you make America great again," Abraham Bonowitz, co-founder of Death Penalty Action, said while standing at the intersection of Indiana 63 and Springhill Drive near the penitentiary.

"We know the government will appeal. We will continue to hold vigilant watch and will be here all week if necessary," Bonowitz said after learning of the court ruling. "There are executions set for Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The question that we all have to ask ourselves is, 'Why — why three executions in the midst of this pandemic?'"

"The reason is because the Republican National Convention is coming up and the Democratic National Convention is coming up, and the president — who is running for re-election — wants to be able to say, 'I am tougher on crime than you are and I will execute. You Democrats are weak, you don't like the death penalty,'" Bonowitz said.

Nationally, Democrats have made ending the death penalty a part of the party's platform.

"I am not a Democrat and I am not a Republican ... what we are looking for is good public policy. And because you have the power to carry out an execution to make your political point, that is wrong," Bonowitz said. "We are standing up to say that is wrong."

Bonowitz said execution opponents are seeking the "common good."

"What is the common good? It is that we can be safe from dangerous offenders and do much better for murder victim members without executions," he said.

Opponents gathered included members of the Indiana State Death Penalty Abolition-Amnesty International; Interfaith Council of the Wabash Valley; Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP; Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods; Social Justice Sector for Charter for Compassion; and Journey of Hope.

Sister Paula Damiano of Sisters of Providence said the Catholic congregation "stands firmly against the death penalty. We stand for love, mercy and justice for all people. We are well aware that the heinous crimes that have been committed by the gentlemen who are on death row right now are terrible," she said.

"They are also people who deserve love, mercy and justice. We are here to pray for them and to pray with them. We are hear to pray for their victims and the families of those victims, because everyone suffers when this sort of thing happens. We don't condone the actions, but we have to love the people," Damiano said.

"It is the gospel message and to do anything less would be to deny the gospel. We must believe that every person can change their lives. I don't know what any of these three men on death row are thinking. I don't know if they are asking for forgiveness. I can only hope that they are," Damiano said.

Sylvester Edwards, president of the Terre Haute Chapter of the NAACP, said Black and brown people are disproportionately placed on death row. Edwards said the reason for that goes back to systemic racism.

"It is because you do not know me," Edwards said, referring to nation's history with African Americans. "What people don't know, they fear. Within that fear, they hate. And from that hate, they will try to destroy," he said. "Know about me, know about us, we are not bad people.

"There is a saying, there are 10 white men in a room. They said Black people are not all that bad. Then one would say, would you want them to marry your daughter?" Edwards said. "That causes silence on the other nine. Ten percent make a decision for the other 90 percent. That is how systemic racism started and continues because of white noise and white silence.

"Only good white people can stop this disease that spreads from the mouths of that 10 percent. They know who is racists in their family, who is racist in their church, at their job, they know who is racist at the club and know who is racist on the police force," Edwards said.

Karen Burkhart, Indiana State Death Penalty Abolition coordinator for Amnesty International USA, said the group opposes "the death penalty because it is the ultimate violation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment."

Burkhart said the nation is working to save lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of that, "came the shocking and violent murder of George Floyd, which ignited years of pent up rage and anger against systemic racism ... Black lives matter. All lives matter because life is sacred and no one has the right to take another person's life.

"Why then has our federal government methodically prepared to kill four U.S. citizens this summer? We must rid our country of this barbaric practice," Burkhart said.

Bonowitz said the groups will not be part of the group taking Bureau of Prisons buses onto the federal property, if executions proceed, and give up their phones and communication.

Instead, the groups will meet closer to U.S. 41 and Springhill Drive to demonstrate their opposition.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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