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July 12, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel vacates stay to put federal execution back on schedule for July 13

As reported in this USA Today piece, a Seventh Circuit panel this evening "ruled that the first federal execution in 17 years should go forward Monday, despite concerns raised by the victims' family members that the resurgent coronavirus risked the health of those who planned to witness Daniel Lewis Lee's death by lethal injection."  Here is more:

The court found that the family's argument "lacks any arguable legal basis and is therefore frivolous."

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson on Friday sided with family members who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as witnesses to execution in Terre Haute, Indiana. “The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee’s execution and their own health and safety," the attorney for the family said Sunday.

The family had planned to attend Lee's execution, even though they are opposed to Lee's death sentence for the murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, 8-year-old Sarah Powell. Earlene Branch Peterson, 81, the young victim's grandmother, and other family members have argued that Lee's co-defendant was the unquestioned ringleader in the 1996 robbery-murder yet was sentenced to life in prison.

The Arkansas judge who presided at trial and the lead prosecutor in the case also have expressed their opposition to Lee's death sentence.

"Because the government has scheduled the execution in the midst of a raging pandemic, these (family members) would have to put their lives at risk to travel cross-country at this time," the family's attorney said. "They will now appeal the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to seek reversal. My clients hope the Supreme Court and the federal government will respect their right to be present at the execution and delay it until travel is safe enough to make that possible.”

The full panel opinion in Peterson v. Barr, No. 20-2252 (7th Cir. July 12, 2020) (available here), runs ten pages and is unanimous.  When I saw that a stay had been entered late Friday by the district court, I was a bit surprised that it focused on the Federal Death Penalty Act and that no mention was made of the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act. The Seventh Circuit panel was plainly unimpressed with arguments based on the FDPA, and now it might be too late for any arguments based in the CVRA. 

I believe various other claims by defendant Lee have been rejected by lower courts, and I am sure they are all going to get to SCOTUS is short order.  But I will be surprised if a majority of the Justices are going to disrupts the feds execution plans.

Prior recent related post:

July 12, 2020 at 08:39 PM | Permalink


If this goes ahead, then on purely political grounds. Nothing to do with Justice for the victim/s. Which rather devalues that old chestnut.

Posted by: peter | Jul 13, 2020 3:56:53 AM

Harsh words for both the plaintiffs and the district judge. I wonder if the panelists would be so quick to criticize as frivolous certain arguments recently made by a different litigant. Say one whose name rhymes with lump...

Between potentially this, Epstein in SDFla/CA11, and the upcoming Epstein redux in SDNY (featuring the rap artist formerly known as G-Max), the CVRA is getting a bit of a workout recently.

@peter: Fully agreed. It also seems odd to speak of a desire for closure by continuing to push for the DP in 2020 when the initial conviction was in 1999. Presumably the ideal form of closure takes place as soon as possible. However, the DP - one of the most time-consuming and expensive (in litigation terms) punishments out there - is in no way conducive to immediate closure. So it's hard to take anyone seriously when they say that.

Posted by: hardreaders | Jul 13, 2020 7:37:10 PM

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