Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted in the 1996 murder of three family members in Arkansas, was executed by lethal injection shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute. It was the first federal execution in 17 years.
Lee, 47, was removed from his holding cell on Monday, strip-searched by the prison restraint team, then dressed and secured with restraints, before being escorted to the execution chamber.
Lee, who had short gray hair and multiple tattoos, was strapped down on a gurney early Tuesday morning and remained there for more than four hours as last-minute legal actions played out.
A catheter had been inserted into a vein in his arm to receive the lethal dose of the powerful sedative phenobarbital to stop his heart.
Witnesses had been admitted to designated and separate areas about 4:20 a.m. after Lee had been secured to the gurney.
When legal issues were resolved, a U.S. marshal directed the execution to proceed. The execution began at 7:45 a.m. and was concluded at 8:07 a.m.
In his final statement to witnesses in the execution chamber, Lee proclaimed innocence.
“I bear no responsibility for the death of the Mueller family,” Lee said as he raised his head to speak. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer. You’re killing an innocent man.”
Lee said he was “on the other end of the country” when the Mueller family was murdered. He also said media should look into why an Arkansas judge did not allow DNA testing on hair from the murder case.
After the fatal drug was administered, Lee continued to move his hands and feet periodically. At one point he raised his head and looked around. By 7:54 a.m., movement had stopped.
At 8:08 a.m., the senior prison official announced that death occurred at 8:07 a.m. The shades on the windows then lowered, and witnesses were escorted out to vans and returned to the prison media center.
An Arkansas jury convicted Lee in the January 1996 killing of William Frederick Mueller, Nancy Ann Mueller and their 8-year-old daughter Sarah Elizabeth Powell.
According to court records, Lee and another man were convicted of traveling from Washington state to rob the Muellers of guns and money to support their white supremacist organization.
After overpowering the family and questioning the child, Lee and co-conspirator Chevie Kehoe shot the victims with a stun gun, duct-taped plastic bags over their heads to suffocate them, then weighed down their bodies with rocks and dumped the bodies in the Illinois Bayou.
On May 4, 1999, a jury found Lee guilty of three counts of murdering in aid of racketeering. He was sentenced to death in May 2002 by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Accomplice Kehoe received a life sentence in prison for his part in the homicides.
After spending more than 18 years on death row, Lee had been scheduled for execution at 4 p.m. Monday.
The Department of Justice first announced its plan to resume federal executions in July 2019, launching a barrage of legal challenges. During Lee’s execution on Monday, legal concerns remained regarding the federal government’s lethal injection protocol.
Monday night, Tuesday morning
Witnesses for the victims' family and media witnesses were gathered on the prison property early Monday afternoon, but a flurry of legal filings and the wait for decisions triggered the long delay.
Media witnesses were dismissed with stand-by instructions Monday night, and were recalled to the prison property a few hours later.
Early Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court removed the last remaining stay of execution in the case, and prison officials resumed the execution protocol around 2 a.m.
However, Lee's attorney raised a legal issue that challenged the execution. Another delay of several hours followed with the Bureau of Prisons filing an emergency motion with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to expedite a mandate for the execution.
Media witnesses remained inside a 12-by-12-foot room about three-and-a-half hours.
At 7:45 a.m., the blinds were raised on two 4-by-4-foot windows to show the execution room where Lee was restrained on a gurney with both arms strapped down and extended at 45-degree angles.
Inside the execution room with Lee were individuals identified as a U.S. marshal, two senior Bureau of Prisons officials and a woman identified as Lee’s spiritual adviser, described as an Appalachian pagan minister.
The interior of the execution chamber in the Special Confinement Unit (death row) appeared relatively unchanged from images released by the Bureau of Prisons prior to the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh's was the first federal execution since 1963. Two other executions occurred, the last in 2003. The facility remained unused for 17 years until Tuesday's execution.
Currently, more than 60 people have a federal death sentence imposed. The majority of them are housed on death row at the Terre Haute prison.
Protesters in favor of and opposed to the execution avoided the staging areas set aside for them on the prison grounds. Instead, protesters gathered along U.S. 41 on the city's south side in highly visible locations.
Among the protesters was Abraham Bonowitz, co-director of Death Penalty Action, a national organization mobilizing opposition to federal executions.
"If the government treated saving lives and solving the problems so many citizens struggle with with the same urgency that they used to kill Daniel Lee, we would all be much better off,” Bonowitz said in a statement after the execution.
Bonowitz has repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump, saying Trump is using the executions as an election ploy.
"The timing of these execution dates and the insistence on going forward despite the pandemic leads to only one conclusion. It is election season, and Donald Trump is revving up what he thinks is his base,” Bonowitz said. “Why else did they wait 27 months to set execution dates and announce them when they wanted to move special investigator [Robert] Mueller off the front pages last summer?
"Why are there three executions set on a single week while a pandemic rages on, and just weeks before the political conventions?”
Several other groups also organized protests, including the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and the Catholic Mobilizing Network.
“By all measures, this execution was unnecessary and avoidable,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.
In a 5-4 vote early Tuesday, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution.
With conservatives in the majority, the court said in an unsigned opinion that the executions may proceed,
“It is our responsibility ‘to ensure that method-of-execution challenges to lawfully issued sentences are resolved fairly and expeditiously, so that ‘the question of capital punishment’ can remain with ‘the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve,’” the majority said in the court order. “In keeping with that responsibility, we vacate the district court’s preliminary injunction so that the plaintiffs’ executions may proceed as planned.”
The four liberal justices dissented, arguing the majority was short-changing judicial review
“Today’s decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decision making can be,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The court forever deprives respondents of their ability to press a constitutional challenge to their lethal injections, and prevents lower courts from reviewing that challenge.”
The high court's actions removed a hold placed Monday afternoon by a district judge. They also overruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The appeals court late Monday had said the injunction should stay in place, it ordered further briefings and was to schedule oral arguments.
Ruth Friedman, attorney for Daniel Lee, issued a statement following the execution.
"It is important for everyone to understand exactly what happened last night to our client, Daniel Lewis Lee. At 2 a.m. on July 14, while the country was sleeping, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision vacating the injunction that had been in place against the first federal execution in 17 years," Friedman said.
"Within minutes, the Department of Justice moved to re-set Danny Lee's execution — for 4 a.m., summoning media and witnesses back to the prison in the very middle of the night. When it was brought to the government's attention that a court stay still remained in place, the DOJ (Department of Justice) first maintained that that stay presented no legal impediment to executing Danny Lee, but then filed an 'emergency' motion to lift the stay.
Friedman continued: "Over the four hours it took for this reckless and relentless government to pursue these ends, Daniel Lewis Lee remained strapped to a gurney: a mere 31 minutes after a court of appeals lifted the last impediment to his execution at the federal government's urging, while multiple motions remained pending, and without notice to counsel, he was executed. "
The attorney also said it was shameful for the government to carry out the execution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attorney General William Barr, in pushing to resume the executions, had said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and provide closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
But relatives of those killed by Lee 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.
More executions this week
Two additional executions are scheduled this week at the federal prison.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 4 p.m. today (Wednesday, July 15). A stay ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago remained in effect as of Monday. However, prison officials said Tuesday they planned to execute Purkey on schedule.
Dustin Lee Honken, 52, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 4 p.m. Friday.
A fourth death row inmate – 45-year-old Keith Dwayne Nelson – is scheduled to die by lethal injection Aug. 28.
Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.