WATCH | US federal government to execute inmates for first time since 2003

2019-07-26 08:34


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The United States Justice Department on Thursday reinstated a two-decade long dormant policy allowing the federal government's use of capital punishment and immediately scheduled the executions for five death row federal inmates.

"Congress has expressly authorised the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people's representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the president," Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.

"The Justice Department upholds the rule of law - and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

US President Donald Trump has called for increasing the use of the death penalty for drug traffickers and mass shooters, a request the Justice Department has since laid the groundwork to carry out.

Early on in the administration, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to examine what steps might be required to resume the use of the death penalty, a Justice Department official said.

Opioid crisis

In March 2018, Sessions also called on federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty when bringing cases against drug dealers and traffickers as part of a strategy to help combat the opioid crisis.

Most recently in May, the department's Office of Legal Counsel took steps to make it easier for states to carry out executions by declaring that the Food and Drug Administration lacked the power to regulate lethal injection drugs.

That decision will make it easier for states to import such drugs after many pharmaceutical companies cut off supplies.

There are currently 62 federal inmates on death row, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted a deadly bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

The Justice Department said it has scheduled executions for five federal inmates who have been convicted of murders and sex crimes, with more planned in the future.

All five will be executed by lethal injection using a single drug - phenobarbital. According to US media, however, analysts say it is unclear if a protocol will be in place in time for executions to take place by the end of the year. Analysts also expect opposition to any protocol put in place.

The inmates included on the initial list of scheduled executions include, Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who was convicted in Arkansas for murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl.

Another is Lezmond Mitchell, who was found guilty by a jury in Arizona of stabbing a 63-year-old grandmother and forcing her young granddaughter to sit next to her lifeless body on a car journey before slitting the girl's throat.

First date

The other three inmates who will be executed are Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and murdered a teenaged girl, Alfred Bourgeois, who sexually molested and killed his young daughter, and Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and killed five people.

Lee will be the first one to be executed, with the date set for December 9, 2019.

"Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies," the department said, adding that all five executions will take place at the US Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana.

Online, rights groups, some Democrats and activists called the move "wrong".

"The decision by this administration to resume the federal death penalty after a nearly two-decade hiatus is wrong," Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement.

Kamala Harris, a senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted that "capital punishment is immoral and deeply flawed".

"We need a national moratorium on the death penalty, not a resurrection," she added.

Democratic Representative Barbara Lee on Twitter called the death penalty "a racist and error-prone practice that doesn't deter crime".

About 43.6% of the current death row inmates are white, the Death Penalty Information Center found.

Nearly 42% are black, despite African Americans making up only 13.4% of the US population.  

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