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Judge Blocks First Federal Execution in 17 Years Citing Covid (1)

July 10, 2020, 10:41 PMUpdated: July 10, 2020, 10:55 PM

A federal trial judge in Indiana blocked what was set to be the first federal execution in 17 years scheduled for July 13, saying the government didn’t properly take into account victim family members’ concerns of attending the execution during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The family members can likely show that the Justice Department set Daniel Lee’s execution without considering their right to be present in violation of federal law, Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the Southern District of Indiana said in granting the preliminary injunction.

“The public, like the government, has an interest in prompt and orderly execution of Mr. Lee’s death sentence,” Judge Magnus-Stinson said. “But the public also has an interest—codified by Congress—in ensuring that crime victims are ‘treated with fairness and with respect for the victim’s dignity.’”

The judge said the public’s interest in a prompt, orderly execution “should give way to their interest in treating Ms. Peterson, Ms. Gurel, and Ms. Veillette with fairness, respect, and dignity,” referring to Earlene Branch Peterson, Kimma Gurel, and Monica Veillette, who, notably, oppose the execution.

The government “gave no consideration to whether Ms. Peterson, who must travel more than 500 miles from Arkansas, and Ms. Gurel, who will travel by plane from Washington, can safely get to Terre Haute for the execution,” the judge said, referring to Spokane Valley, Washington, which is nearly 2,000 miles from Terre Haute, Ind., where Lee’s planned July 13 execution was supposed to kick off a series of federal executions. Other inmates have their own pending individual challenges following the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection last month of a challenge to the government’s execution protocol.

Over objections from the family members, the Justice Department said it would appeal the injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. It filed a motion seeking to stay the judge’s ruling pending appeal.

After the ruling, the family had said in a statement from their lawyer, Baker Kurrus, that they were “hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today’s ruling, a reversal of which would put them back in the untenable position of choosing between attending the execution at great risk to their health and safety, or forgoing this event they have long wanted to be present for.”

Announcing last summer that the federal government would resume executions, Attorney General William Barr said “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The case is Peterson v. Barr, S.D. Ind., No. 2:20-cv-00350-JMS-DLP, 7/10/20.

(Adds DOJ stay motion, notice of appeal. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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