The U.S. Supreme Court refused to clear the federal government to resume executions next week after a 16-year hiatus, rejecting a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration to lift a court-ordered hold.
The Justice Department had sought to have the trial judge’s hold lifted in time for Daniel Lewis Lee to be put to death next Monday in Indiana.
The court as a whole gave no explanation, but the justices said they expect a federal appeals court to move with “appropriate dispatch” in the case.
Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh said the appeals court should be able to rule within 60 days. The three went along with the Supreme Court’s order Friday, though Alito wrote for the group that the Justice Department “is very likely to prevail when this question is ultimately decided.”
In blocking four death sentences, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington faulted the administration’s plan to use pentobarbital sodium for all lethal injections. She said the plan violated a 1994 law that requires the U.S. government to conduct executions “in the manner” required by the state where the sentence was imposed.
Although lethal injection is the primary method in every state that conducts executions, some states use a three-drug protocol.
“There is no statute that gives the BOP or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan wrote, referring to the Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department. Congress “expressly reserved those decisions for the states of conviction,” the judge said.
Chutkan’s order blocked four inmates from being put to death. A fifth execution has been put on hold for separate reasons by a different court.
Lee was convicted of taking part in the 1998 killing of an Arkansas family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, as part of what prosecutors said was a rampage geared toward setting up a whites-only nation.
Attorney General William Barr said in July that the federal government would resume putting some convicted murderers to death.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Friday officials were disappointed but prepared to argue the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. “The Department of Justice is committed to upholding the rule of law and to carrying forward sentences imposed by our justice system,” Kupec said in an emailed statement.
U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the Supreme Court that the inmates were suing over a “purely procedural violation.” He said that in other cases, death-row inmates have argued that the single-drug approach is less likely to subject them to severe pain.
The federal prisoners have “failed to identify any material way in which the federal lethal-injection protocol will put them at a greater risk of pain (or inflict any other concrete injury),” Francisco wrote.
The four inmates told the court that the public interest would be “ill served” if they were put to death without having a full chance to challenge the method the government plans to use.
“Nowhere does the government explain or justify the sudden urgency to execute prisoners now,” the inmates argued.
A federal appeals court refused to let executions resume while the administration pressed its appeal of Chutkan’s ruling. That prompted the administration to turn to the Supreme Court.
The court has become more receptive to the death penalty with the arrival of two Trump appointees, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
Only three people have been executed for federal crimes since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1988. The most recent federal execution took place in 2003.
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