WASHINGTON – The Justice Department is plowing ahead with its plan to resume federal executions next week for the first time in more than 15 years, despite the coronavirus pandemic raging both inside and outside prisons and stagnating national support for the death penalty.
Three people are scheduled to die by lethal injection in one week at an Indiana prison, beginning Monday. Bureau of Prisons officials insist they will be able to conduct the executions safely and have been holding practice drills for months.
Family members of the victims and the inmates will be able to attend but will be required to wear face masks. Prison officials will take temperature checks. The agency will also make personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, available for witnesses, but there are no plans to test anyone attending the executions for COVID-19, officials said.
The decision to go ahead with the executions has been criticized as a dangerous and political move by an administration that at times seems disinterested in addressing racial disparities in the death penalty and larger criminal justice system. Critics argue the government is instead creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that isn't high on the list of American concerns right now, when more than 130,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States and the unemployment rate is 11%.
“Why would anybody who is concerned about public health and safety want to bring in people from all over the country for three separate execution in the span of five days to a virus hot spot?” questioned Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan organization that collects information on capital punishment.
“The original execution plan last year appeared to be political. And the current plan eliminates any doubt about that," he said.
Attorney General William Barr has denied that politics played a role in the decision last year to resume executions, which ended an informal freeze on imposition of federal capital punishment. Barr has said the government has an obligation to carry out the sentences, including the death penalty, that are imposed by courts, and that the Justice Department owes it to the families of the victims and others in their communities to do so.
“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement last month.
But before the pandemic, the economy and health care were Americans’ top priorities for the government to work on in 2020, with 59% and 50% naming the two, respectively, in an open-ended question in an Associated Press-NORC poll from December. Some 35% said immigration was one of the most important issues the government should work on in 2020, and about as many referenced politics or partisan gridlock.
The percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty stood at 60% in the 2018 General Social Survey, a long-running trends survey. That’s about where it was in the 1970s. Support has steadily ticked back down after peaking at 75% in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Most Democrats oppose it. By contrast, President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
He has pushed for new death penalty legislation, even though it's questionable whether that would deter assailants, especially because most don’t live to face trial.
“This appears to be a distraction,” said Samuel Spital, the litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. There are several things that should be at the top of the agenda for the Justice Department right now, he said, including the coronavirus. Another "should be an effort to address the widespread problem of police violence against Black and brown communities in this country which has finally captured the public’s attention,” he said.
The majority of people on death row are Black and Hispanic, and the number of cases authorized by the attorney general seeking death since the late 1980s are mostly nonwhite people.
But the three men chosen to die next week are all white:
—Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old. Family members of Lee's victims have asked a federal judge to delay his execution, saying the coronavirus puts them at risk if they travel to attend the execution. They have asked that the execution be put off until a treatment or a vaccine is available for the virus.
—Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman.
—Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children.
Keith Dwayne Nelson, scheduled to be executed in August, was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raping her in a forest behind a church, then strangling her.
Three of the men had been set to be put to death last year, when Barr first announced that the federal government would resume executions.
The effort was put on hold by a trial judge. The federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the trial judge’s order. The Supreme Court then refused to halt the process, A lower court could still stop them from happening.
The executions will take place at the federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. One inmate there has died from COVID-19, but the federal prison system has struggled to combat the coronavirus. There have been no coronavirus cases in the special unit where the four men are being held, officials said.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. Last July, Barr said said the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.