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Federal Government Will Resume Executions


Federal executions are set to resume next week for the first time in 17 years. Three men are scheduled to die by lethal injection at the federal death chamber in Indiana. That is unless courts side with the inmates and their religious advisers to stop the process.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this. Hi, Carrie.


GREENE: So who are these men, and what did they do to end up on death row?

JOHNSON: The schedule for next week is busy. Daniel Lee is set to be executed Monday; Wesley Purkey, Wednesday and Dustin Honken on Friday. They took part in the murder of children and teens, according to the Justice Department, sometimes also old people. David, these are gruesome crimes. The Justice Department says the victims are some of the most vulnerable in society. But these men's lawyers say there are problems with their convictions or that juries didn't hear evidence about the trauma that these men experienced when they were children.

GREENE: Well - and this story has become a lot more complex over the past couple of weeks with efforts to delay the executions. Can you take us through exactly what's going on?

JOHNSON: There's been a lot of action inside the courts. These prisoners have already lost a case based on the method of execution - lethal injection. A single drug now is replacing the old three-drug procedure. And now they've begun to sue over the coronavirus pandemic. Spiritual advisers for two of these men about to be executed have sued. They say the Justice Department is pitting their religious obligations to the prisoners against their own health.

And family members of victims in another case have sued over the pandemic, too. They're arguing it will put their lives at risk to have to go through layers of prison security and then sit in a crowded witness room with other people. One woman whose daughter and granddaughter were victims of that crime actually made a video for President Trump. Her name is Earlene Peterson. She says she doesn't want Daniel Lee to be executed next week.


EARLENE PETERSON: I can't see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way. She wouldn't want it, and I don't want it. That's not the way it should be. That's not the God I serve.

JOHNSON: And Earlene Peterson says she's a supporter of President Trump. She voted for him in 2016.

GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, Carrie, I guess - what is the hurry? Like, can't these executions be postponed until, say, there's a vaccine?

JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department says there already has been a delay. Attorney General Bill Barr wanted these executions to happen last year before Christmas, but they got bogged down in court. Prison officials in Indiana say they're going to do temperature checks and hand out masks for people witnessing the executions.

It's worth noting, as you said, the last time the federal government put someone to death was in 2003. There was a problem with availability of some of the drugs in the lethal injection protocol and some overall discomfort in the Obama administration among some people. But the new AG, Bill Barr, says justice can't wait anymore. He says we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.

GREENE: OK. So 17 years it's been since a federal execution. What about it - if we zoom out on a state level, what is the situation when it comes to capital punishment?

JOHNSON: It has become really rare - near record lows. So far this year, there have been - first half of this year, there have only been 13 new death sentences and only seven executions. Race continues to be a factor, with eight of the new death sentences involving only white victims and none involving only black victims. Right now the country seems on track to have another record-low year for capital punishment overall.

GREENE: All right. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.