The decision to move forward with the execution – and two others scheduled later in the week – during a global health pandemic that has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide, drew scrutiny from civil rights groups as well as family of Lee’s victims.
Critics argued that the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.
“The government has been trying to plough forward with these executions despite many unanswered questions about the legality of its new execution protocol,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution.
The developments are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
Lee’s execution went off after a series of legal volleys that ended when the Supreme Court stepped in early Tuesday in a 5-4 ruling and allowed it to move forward.
Attorney-General William Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and to bring a sense of closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.
But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 strongly opposed that idea and long argued that Lee deserved a sentence of life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention that the execution was being done on their behalf.
“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, ‘This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,'” relative Monica Veillette said.
They noted that Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.
Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organisation, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 120 kilometres north-west of Little Rock.
At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $US50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.
Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.
A US District Court judge put a hold on Lee’s execution on Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it. That delay came after an appeals court on Sunday overturned a hold that had been put in place last week after the victims’ relatives argued they would be put at high risk for the coronavirus if they had to travel to attend the execution.
Two other federal executions are scheduled for later this week, though one is on hold in a separate legal claim.
There have been two state executions in the US since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama carried out one in early March.
Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
Though there hadn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-president Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
The Attorney-General said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily since the last federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Centre. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019, nine of which were in Texas.