A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled early Tuesday that the Justice Department may resume federal executions, vacating an appellate court’s last-minute injunction against the first federal death sentence in nearly 20 years.
In a 5-4 decision, the court overturned a restraining order Monday that prevented the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection at a federal prison in Indiana.
The injunction, granted by a District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., had also barred the impending executions of three other federal death row inmates. Chutkan in her ruling cited concerns that the lethal injection process is “very likely to cause extreme pain and needless suffering.”
The high court justices ruled that the four death row inmates “have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a federal court.”
“‘Last-minute stays’ like that issued [Monday] morning ‘should be the extreme exception, not the norm,'” the high court wrote in its order. “It is our responsibility ‘to ensure that method-of-execution challenges to lawfully issued sentences are resolved fairly and expeditiously, so that ‘the question of capital punishment’ can remain with ‘the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve.’
“In keeping with that responsibility, we vacate the District Court’s preliminary injunction so that the plaintiffs’ executions may proceed as planned.”
The District Court injunction blocked the four executions on the grounds that the use of the drug pentobarbital in lethal injections constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The Justice Department has sought to execute the inmates since July of last year when it outlined new execution protocols, but the process has wound through the courts over the planned use of the single-drug pentobarbital instead of the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions.
Fourteen states have used the single-drug process in more than 200 executions since 2010, but adoption by the Federal Bureau of Prisons has led to legal challenges.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr had scheduled the four executions in June after a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated an earlier injunction.
In its decision, the Supreme Court wrote that although the plaintiffs cite experts who suggest pentobarbital causes respiratory distress that mimics the sensation of drowning, government attorneys have produced competing expert testimony that the condition occurs only “after the prisoner has died or been rendered fully insensate.”
Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented.
“The government is poised to carry out the first federal executions in nearly two decades. Yet, because of the court’s rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the government plans to execute them,” Sotomayor wrote.
Lee was sentenced to die for his role as an accomplice in the 1996 murders of William Mueller, his wife Nancy Mueller and stepdaughter Sarah Powell in Georgia. His execution will be the first since 2003.
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