The first federal execution due to take place in the US in 17 years was dramatically halted at the last minute on Monday, in a setback for the Trump administration's goal of reviving capital punishment.
Daniel Lewis Lee, who is serving a sentence for serial killings committed in 1996, was set to die by lethal injection at a federal prison complex in Indiana on Monday afternoon.
However, a judge in Washington DC ordered an 11th hour stay, ruling that it likely violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
District Judge Tanya Chutkan said that there was evidence showing that the drug the Department of Justice intends to use to carry out executions "produces sensations of drowning and asphyxiation" and causes "extreme pain, terror and panic."
Judge Chutkan ordered a preliminary injunction against the government while the courts hear a legal challenge from two other death row inmates who were scheduled for execution this week.
She chastised the Trump administration for quickly moving to set execution dates while the court challenge was playing out.
“The public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed in a manner consistent with our Constitution,” she said in the ruling.
The Department of Justice immediately appealed to a higher court on Monday, asking that the executions move forward. The Supreme Court may eventually have the final say.
The scheduled execution of Lee, the first of a federal death row inmate since 2003, was to be carried out after a federal appeals court lifted an earlier injunction put in place last week, when the victims’ family argued they would be put at high risk of catching the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution and pushed for the date to be delayed.
The decision to move forward with the executions during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the US is controversial.
Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency around a topic that is not high on the list of American concerns right now.
William Barr, US Attorney General, said he believes the Bureau of Prisons could “carry out these executions without being at risk.” The agency has put a number of additional Covid-19 measures in place, he said, including temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.
Most crimes in the US are tried under state laws, but federal courts handle some of the most serious crimes. Federal executions were ended in 1972 but then reinstated in 1988.