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Federal execution set in '96 slayings; Lee’s date July 13 for 3 state killings

by Tony Holt | June 16, 2020 at 7:29 a.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 execution of a white supremacist convicted in the 1996 slaying of an Arkansas gun dealer's family is scheduled to happen next month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday.

If it goes forward, the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee will be the first execution carried out by the federal government since 2003.

Lee, 47, was convicted in May 1999 of killing William and Nancy Mueller, as well as the latter's 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, inside their Pope County home less than four years earlier.

Lee's execution date is scheduled for July 13.

"The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death," wrote Attorney General William P. Barr in a media release Monday.

"We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system," Barr continued.

Barr announced in July 2019 that he was directing the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to revise the Federal Execution Protocol so that federal executions could resume. The old three-drug combination for lethal injections was being replaced by a single drug, according to the Justice Department.

In November, Tanya Chutkan, a U.S. district judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that Barr's office was "short-circuiting" the judicial process in the pursuit of a death sentence for Lee and other inmates. She also said that implementing a new one-drug protocol without the approval of Congress went beyond the attorney general's authority.

Barr's office appealed the ruling and in April, according to The Associated Press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit threw out Chutkan's order, clearing the path for Lee's execution to be rescheduled.

In January 1996, Lee and his accomplice, Chevie Kehoe, burglarized Mueller's house in Tilly and waited for him and his wife and stepdaughter to come home. Lee and Kehoe used a stun rod to incapacitate the victims before taping plastic bags over their heads to asphyxiate them, authorities said.

The killers drove the victims to the Illinois Bayou near Russellville, taped rocks to their bodies and dropped them into the water.

Lee and Kehoe were arrested separately in September 1997 and were tried together. Jurors recommended life for Kehoe and death for Lee.

Paul Branch, the brother of Nancy Mueller, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last year that Kehoe was the one who most deserved the death penalty because he was more evil than his counterpart.

During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Kehoe as the ringleader and the one who killed the 8-year-old victim. Lee actively participated in the crimes, but refused to kill the girl, they said.

Years after Lee's sentence, the trial judge and lead prosecutor went public with their opinion that Lee's death sentence should be overturned.

In a statement sent late Monday, Lee's attorney, Ruth Friedman, emphasized that, calling it "an unprecdented occurrence" in a capital murder case.

"The government has portrayed Mr. Lee as a white supremacist and a child-killer," Friedman wrote. "Neither is true. He has long since renounced the skinhead groups he joined as a youth, and the government has now dramatically re-characterized its case against Mr. Lee."

She added that it would be "unconscionable" for the execution to go forward.

In addition to Lee, Barr's office scheduled executions for three other federal death row inmates. They, too, were convicted of killing children.

They are Wesley Ira Purkey, who in 1998 raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl in Kansas City, Mo., before dismembering and burning her body in a fireplace; Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and killed five people in 1993 -- including two girls, ages 10 and 6 -- in Mason City, Iowa; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who in 1999 kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas City home and then raped and strangled her.

The executions for Purkey, Honken and Nelson are scheduled for July 15, 17 and Aug. 28, respectively.

Barr's office stated that Lee and the other three inmates awaiting their fate have exhausted their appeals and "no legal impediments" remain to stop their executions, all of which will take place at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

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