Citing COVID threat, judge blocks first federal execution in 17 years; sides with victims' family

Citing the threat posed by a resurgence of the deadly coronavirus, a judge delayed Monday's federal execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who would have been the first federal inmate to be put to death in 17 years.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson acted on a legal challenge brought by family members of the victims who asserted that the pandemic posed an unreasonable health risk to them as witnesses to Monday's execution in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“Earlene Branch Peterson, Kimma Gurel, and Monica Veillette are grateful to the court for this ruling, which will enable them to exercise their right to attend the execution in the future while protecting themselves against the ravages of COVID-19," the family attorney said in a statement Friday. "The family is hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today’s ruling."

The family had planned to attend Lee's execution, even though they are opposed to his death sentence for the murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her daughter, Sarah Powell.

The execution room at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown in this undated file photo.
The execution room at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown in this undated file photo.

Peterson, the young victim's grandmother, said 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.

"We hope the government finally acts in a way to ease, rather than increase, the burdens of Mrs. Peterson and her family who have already been through an unspeakable tragedy," the family attorney said Friday.

The Justice Department declined comment.

Two other inmates are scheduled for execution next week at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, but it was unclear whether those would proceed as planned.

An aerial view of the execution facility at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown in this, April 25, 2001 file photo. On Monday, June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh will be the first federal prisoner put to death since 1963. He was convicted for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 men, women, and children. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Judge delays first federal execution in 17 years, cites COVID risk