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Executions of federal death row inmates set to resume; date scheduled for man convicted of killing Arkansas couple, 8-year-old girl

by Stephen Simpson | July 25, 2019 at 12:01 p.m.
In this Oct. 31 1997, file photo, Danny Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for the 1996 murders of an Arkansas family in Russellville. (AP file photo)

The federal government has scheduled the execution of five death row inmates, including a man who killed a family of three in Arkansas.

The executions would be the first of federal death row inmates since 2003.

Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement that he directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five people convicted in murder cases involving young or elderly victims: Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken.

Barr said the executions would be the first in federal cases in nearly 20 years.

Lee was convicted in 1999 of killing a Pope County family during a cross-country rampage that included the 1996 slayings of gun dealer Bill Mueller, 53; his wife, Nancy Mueller, 28; and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, who lived in the tiny town of Tilly.

Prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice said Lee robbed and shot the victims with a stun gun, then covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou at Russellville. Authorities said the crimes were part of a scheme to steal a large cache of guns and $50,000 cash from Mueller to use in the establishment of a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Chevie Kehoe, who was considered the leader of the conspiracy, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after jurors found that his attorneys had proved several facts that mitigated a death sentence.

A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of multiple offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death.

Lee’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

That review has been completed, the department said, and it has cleared the way for executions to resume.

In a statement, Barr said the "Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

Barr approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug cocktail previously used in federal execution with a single drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

Though there hasn't been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

There are 61 people on the federal death row, according to Death Row USA, a quarterly report of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some of the highest-profile inmates on federal death row include Dylann Roof, who killed nine black church members during a Bible study session in 2015 at a South Carolina church, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon's finish line in 2013, killing three people and wounding more than 260.

The decision to resume carrying out the death penalty is likely to magnify an issue already debated in the Democratic primary and create a flashpoint between that party's nominee and Trump in the general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden this week shifted to call for the elimination of the federal death penalty after years of supporting it. The lone Democratic White House hopeful who has publicly supported preserving capital punishment in certain circumstances is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who has said he would leave it open as an option for major crimes such as terrorism.

By contrast, Trump has spoken often — and sometimes wistfully — about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as both an effective deterrent and appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers. All five scheduled to be executed starting in December were convicted of killing children.

"I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue," Trump said last year after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

He's suggested repeatedly that the U.S. might be better off it adopted the kind of harsh drug laws embraced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under whom thousands of drug suspects have been killed by police.

Trump was a vocal proponent of the death penalty for decades before taking office, most notably in 1989 when he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers urging elected officials to "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY" following the rape of a jogger in Central Park. "If the punishment is strong," he wrote then, "the attacks on innocent people will stop."

Five Harlem teenagers were convicted in the Central Park case but had their convictions vacated years later after another man confessed to the rape. More than a decade after their exoneration, the city agreed to pay the so-called Central Park Five $41 million, a settlement Trump blasted as "outrageous."

About 6 in 10 Americans favor the death penalty, according to the General Social Survey, a major trends survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. While a majority continue to express support for the death penalty, the share has declined steadily since the 1990s, when nearly three-quarters were in favor.

The most recent federal execution occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a female soldier.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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