HECTOR -- The death penalty wasn't handed down 20 years ago to the meanest of the two killers on trial, it was handed down to the one who looked the meanest, according to the victims' family members.
They have pleaded with the government not to move forward with the looming lethal injection for Daniel Lewis Lee.
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., halted the execution that was scheduled for Dec. 9. Lee, 46, would have been the first federal prisoner executed in more than 16 years.
"I've never seen a case like this," said Lee's attorney, Morris Moon, who has worked death-penalty cases since 2001. "The trial prosecutor opposes [death], the trial judge opposes it and the victims' family opposes it. It really is astounding."
Lee's accomplice, Chevie Kehoe -- who prosecutors said was the most culpable and sinister of the two -- is serving life in prison.
Twenty-three years ago, William Mueller, along with his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, Sarah Powell, were asphyxiated and dumped into the Illinois Bayou by two white supremacists, Lee and Kehoe, who were seeking to fund and create a whites-only community in the Pacific Northwest.
Prosecutors said Kehoe, 46, was the alpha dog who planned the murders and was the one who killed Sarah, who was 8 years old. Lee was the follower who participated in the killings, but refused to kill the girl.
"If anyone should've gotten the death penalty, it should've been Chevie Kehoe," said Paul Branch, who was Nancy Mueller's brother and Sarah Powell's uncle. "He's an evil person."
Last week, Branch spoke to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter in front of his mother's rural home in Hector. He admitted being uneasy around journalists. The 1999 trial for Kehoe and Lee remains a traumatizing event for him and his family. They were constantly surrounded by cameramen and people holding microphones to their faces, he said. They listened day after day to excruciating testimony about the manner in which Nancy Mueller and her daughter were killed.
At the end of the gut-wrenching trial, in which Kehoe's own mother testified against him and provided disturbing details of the killings, jurors chose to sentence Lee to death and give Kehoe life.
Branch said he knows why. Jurors judged by their eyes and not their ears, he said.
Lee didn't have a left eye. He had lost it in a bar fight. He had Nazi tattoos on his neck. In court, he was demonstrative, even twitchy.
Kehoe had a less-chilling appearance. He wore a suit that covered up his scars and tattoos. He was clean-cut and mild-mannered.
Branch said jurors didn't have much of a reaction whenever Kehoe entered the courtroom. By comparison, when Lee walked in, the expressions on their faces changed.
"The trial was not fair at all," Branch said.
Dan Stripling was the lead prosecutor in the case. In 2014, he wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder stating he had concerns about Lee's sentence. The next year, the trial judge in the case wrote to Holder second-guessing his ruling for death.
Branch's mother, Earlene Peterson, 80, recorded a six-minute video with her daughter and granddaughter earlier this year requesting clemency for Lee.
Peterson declined an interview request with the Democrat-Gazette. Branch said she no longer grants interviews because she didn't like how the last journalist behaved with her.
In August, in an interview with The New York Times, Peterson explained why she did not want to see Lee put to death.
"I believe putting Daniel Lee to death is not the answer," she told the Times. "It's an easy way out. He should have to live through this like I did."
Kehoe and Lee used a stun rod on their victims. They taped plastic bags over their heads and sealed the bags with duct tape, cutting off their oxygen. They bound their wrists and ankles with handcuffs and plastic ties.
The killers tossed their victims into the Illinois Bayou, but not until after they taped rocks to their bodies to make sure they stayed submerged. Sarah had a rock attached to her that weighed nearly 70 pounds.
The medical examiner testified at the trial that it was never determined whether the victims died before or after they were dropped into the water.
The following details of the slayings were disclosed during the trial by Gloria Kehoe, Chevie Kehoe's mother. She said her son described to her what he and Lee had done to the Muellers one night while she was driving him to dinner.
The men entered the Mueller home in Tilly wearing black raid gear. They shielded their faces and had markings on their clothes indicating they were federal law enforcement officers.
The Muellers weren't home when Kehoe and Lee entered, so the killers waited for them. Kehoe found a spot behind the washing machine and Lee hid behind a couch.
Kehoe was familiar with the house. He had burglarized it in 1995. Kehoe knew Bill Mueller and knew he was a gun dealer.
After the Muellers arrived home, the intruders waited until they walked through the door and into the middle of the living room. That's when one of them turned on the lights and yelled, "ATF! Raid!"
The family was ordered to sit on the couch, at which time plastic bags were placed over their heads.
Bill Mueller, who suspected early on that the raid was fake, started to fight back. Kehoe and Lee used the stun rod -- a baton that delivers an electric shock -- to debilitate him. They used it on all three victims. They held it against their necks.
Kehoe got Sarah to tell him where her mother and stepfather kept their valuables. Mueller didn't use banks, preferring to keep his cash at home. He had a lot of it lying around. He also owned a lot of guns. Kehoe and Lee stole more than $50,000 and a cache of weapons.
The family was slain in January 1996. The bodies were recovered nearly six months later in 20-foot-deep water near Russellville after a woman who was fishing pulled her line and saw two tennis shoes and a leg bone poking out of the water.
The first break in the case came in December 1996 when a Washington state man was arrested in Sioux Falls, S.D., with a rifle that was stolen from the Mueller home. He told authorities he obtained the weapon from Kehoe.
Kehoe and his brother, Cheyne Kehoe, were pulled over in February 1997 in Wilmington, Ohio, after being spotted in a vehicle with expired tags.
The brothers exchanged gunfire with law enforcement officers and escaped unharmed. More of Mueller's weapons were found in the SUV the brothers abandoned.
Cheyne Kehoe surrendered four months later in Washington and he helped lead authorities to his brother, who was living under an assumed name in southwestern Utah.
In September 1997, Chevie Kehoe was officially charged in the slayings of William and Nancy Mueller and Sarah Powell. Authorities charged Lee that same day. He was arrested at his mother's home in Yukon, Okla.
In 2014, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to conduct a review of capital punishment and the use of lethal-injection drugs. He did so in the wake of a botched execution in Oklahoma, one of a handful of states that still regularly carries out executions. Arkansas is another.
In July, Attorney General William Barr announced the review had been completed, so executions could resume. A new protocol was introduced for lethal injections in which a single drug would replace the old three-drug combination.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said in her ruling late Wednesday that the public was not served by "short-circuiting" the judicial process when it comes to capital punishment. She added that the most serious penalty handed down by the U.S. judicial system is required to be "imposed lawfully."
On Thursday afternoon, Barr told the media that his office would appeal and would be prepared to take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Barr also announced in July that Lee would be the first inmate to be executed. Three other inmates also had executions dates announced and they were all scheduled to take place in December and January. All of those executions are on hold.
The last to be executed by the federal government was Louis Jones in March 2003. He was only the third inmate executed after the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988. The first was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in June 2001.
In her ruling, Chutkan stated that the proposed one-drug protocol contradicts the Federal Death Penalty Act's requirement that death row inmates be executed "in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction." Implementing a federal method goes beyond the attorney general's authority, Chutkan said.
Shawn Nolan, a Philadelphia attorney who represents two of the inmates who were scheduled to be executed, said the new execution method was never authorized by Congress or properly vetted.
"We were very happy to see this decision [Wednesday] night," he said, calling Chutkan's opinion "very well reasoned."
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
Metro on 11/22/2019