The federal government has not carried out an execution in 17 years.
The U.S. Department of Justice intends to execute three federal death row inmates in the span of five days next week. Scores of people from across the country — including families of victims and the prisoners, corrections employees, legal teams, clergy and journalists — will converge on Terre Haute and its Federal Correctional Complex on the city's south side to witness the executions or to perform duties.
Federal and state prisons have become hot spots for spread of COVID-19. In the federal system alone, 7,596 inmates and 839 staff members nationwide either have the virus now or have recovered from confirmed cases, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Ninety-four prisoners and one staff person have died.
Most reasonable people, whether for or against capital punishment, would agree that postponing these executions until after the pandemic has ended makes sense.
Attorney General William Barr and his Department of Justice are forging ahead with their plan, nonetheless. His department stated that it owes that exercise of justice to the victims' families and communities. Yet, the family of one of the death row inmate's murder victims filed a lawsuit, seeking a delay in Monday's scheduled execution of Daniel Lewis Lee. Their lawsuit says family members, especially those with vulnerable health, are being put in an "untenable position because they cannot exercise their rights as witnesses without putting their own lives in danger."
Two days after Lee's scheduled execution, the same scenario is slated to unfold with the execution of Wesley Ira Purkey. Then, on Friday, Dustin Lee Honken is scheduled to die. A fourth execution at the Terre Haute federal death chamber is scheduled for convicted murderer Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28.
To be sure, each of the men were convicted of despicable crimes, including the killing of children. The victims and their families indeed deserve justice, whether they favor the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the perpetrators. As the one family's lawsuit explains, risking the lives of those very same families is unnecessary. They asked the federal government to delay Lee's execution until COVID-19 "abates sufficiently so as to allow for safe travel and indoor gathering or there is an effective vaccine."
By ignoring the risks, Barr and the DOJ are only reinforcing skepticism that their determination to carry out the executions is a political effort to appeal to President Trump's base of voters in his quest to win reelection in November. Barr announced the resumption of federal executions, paused for legal reasons since 2003, last June, the morning after special counsel Robert Mueller finished his testimony before Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by Trump.
Barr also originally scheduled the executions to begin in December, on the brink of state primary elections. That plan seemingly would have forced the president's opponents to focus on the death penalty — a policy he commonly touts. Judicial challenges delayed those executions until the Supreme Court cleared their resumption last month.
Barr has steadfastly denied there are political reasons for carrying out the executions this year. If that is so, the DOJ should postpone this cluster of executions. After all, each of the four convicts have been on death row for 16 to 22 years. No federal executions have happened since 2003.
Given the health crisis underway, the DOJ should wait.
"After 17 years, there's no immediate need to do it now," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which is neutral on the death penalty. "There's no federal interest that has changed over the course of those 17 years that makes it so that you must do it now in a manner that is unsafe. At a minimum, [the executions] should be postponed until the pandemic clears."
The health of the families and workers involved, as well as the Terre Haute community, matters.