Three men executed, four others at risk
On 14 July, the US authorities carried out the first execution since 2003 of a person convicted under federal law. Daniel Lewis Lee was pronounced dead at 08.07am on 14 July, more than 16 hours after his execution was initially set. The original death warrant expired at midnight and, two hours later, the US Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution that was ordered by the US District of Columbia court in a 5-4 decision. The Department of Justice reset the execution for 4am, and as the validity of the stay was further litigated, Daniel Lewis Lee remained cruelly strapped to the lethal injection gurney. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit removed the last legal impediment to the execution at 7.36am and the federal authorities moved to immediately administer the lethal injection to Daniel Lewis Lee, without adequate notice to his legal counsel and with several legal motions in the case still pending.
Wesley Ira Purkey was pronounced dead on 16 July at 8.19am, also 16 hours after the time set for his execution. His attorneys filed a motion before the US District of Columbia court to seek a stay of execution on the ground that he had Alzheimer’s disease and had been diagnosed with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and psychosis, which made him not competent for execution. International law prohibits the use of the death penalty against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities The District Court granted the injunction on the execution, only for that to be lifted by the US Supreme Court – again in a 5-4 decision – in the early hours of 16 June, after the original death warrant expired. His attorneys expressed concern at several violations of due process in the case, including the withholding from the government of scientific evidence documenting his advancing dementia and the lack of adequate notice of the rescheduled execution.
Dustin Honken’s execution was set for 4pm on 17 July and he was pronounced dead 36 minutes later. His attorneys highlighted how his trial and sentencing were affected by misconduct and ineffective legal counsel, who failed to inform the jury of his mental disability and challenges in his background history. All three executions took place at the Federal Correctional Centre in Terre Haute, Indiana. A fourth federal execution remains scheduled for 28 August, even if the attorneys representing the man highlighted how the ineffective legal representation he received at trial resulted in crucial errors and the jury never hearing of mitigating factors in his case, including the repeated sexual and physical abuse that he faced during his traumatic childhood. On 29 July, US Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to set the execution of a fifth man for 26 August. Two additional executions have also been set for 22 and 24 September.
The pursuit of these executions, including through the rushed rescheduling, proceeding with expired death warrants, as motions remained pending, show complete disregard on the part of the US federal authorities of international safeguards that must be observed in all death penalty cases and provide further evidence of the flaws and arbitrariness that have long affected the use of the death penalty in the USA. In his dissenting judgment in Barr v. Purkey, joined by Justice Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice Breyer concluded: “the Federal Government has resumed executions after a 17-year hiatus. And the very first cases reveal the same basic flaws that have long been present in many state cases. That these problems have emerged so quickly suggests that they are the product not of any particular jurisdiction or the work of any particular court, prosecutor, or defense counsel, but of the punishment itself. A modern system of criminal justice must be reasonably accurate, fair, humane, and timely. Our recent experience with the Federal Government’s resumption of executions adds to the mounting body of evidence that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with those values. I remain convinced of the importance of reconsidering the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”
As of today, 142 countries are abolitionist in law or practice. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, without exception.