WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a legal challenge to a new lethal injection protocol proposed for federal executions, clearing the way for the Trump administration to resume executing federal death row inmates for the first time in nearly two decades.
The high court said it would not review a ruling by a federal appeals court that greenlighted the planned executions of four federal death row inmates.
The inmates had challenged their executions, arguing that the federal lethal injection protocol must comply with standards used in the states where they were sentenced.
A federal court agreed with the prisoners, but in April, the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia reversed the decision.
Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have heard the challenge.
The high court’s decision means that unless another court intervenes, the four inmates — all convicted of murdering children — will be put to death at a federal prison in Haute, Indiana, beginning July 13.
The first inmate scheduled for execution is Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group convicted in 1999 of murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl. Lee and two other prisoners will be executed in rapid succession on July 13, 15 and 17. The fourth inmate, Keith Nelson, is set for execution on Aug. 28.
If the executions go forward, they will effectively end a 17-year moratorium on federal capital punishment. The last federal execution in the United States took place in 2003 when Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. was put to death for the kidnapping and murder of a 19-year-old soldier. Federal executions remained on hold under both the Bush and Obama administrations until Attorney General William Barr, a fervent advocate of the death penalty, reinstated them last summer.
The executions scheduled for the next two months will also come at a time when more U.S. states and countries around the world are moving away from the death penalty in favor of life sentences and other punishments.
“There's a strong national trend away from capital punishment,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Fewer and fewer states are carrying out executions.”
According to the center, 62 federal inmates are currently on death row in the United States.
Internationally, an increasingly small number of countries are carrying out executions, according to Dunham.
“And the ones that do are the ones that have exhibited less regard for the fairness of trials,” Dunham said.
The Department of Justice last year announced plans to reinstate federal capital punishment after Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to adopt a lethal injection protocol consisting of a single drug used by several states. The drug, pentobarbital, is to replace a three-drug cocktail previously used in federal executions.
But five inmates scheduled to be executed in December and January filed legal challenges, holding up their executions.
The Justice Department announced the four men’s execution dates two weeks ago, saying all four had exhausted their appeals.
“We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said at the time.
But lawyers for the four men said litigation is still underway in federal district court.
“These executions were set while litigation has been pending and despite serious concerns in these prisoners’ cases, including opposition to the death sentence from victims’ family members, mental competency, and compelling mitigation evidence that their juries never heard,” the lawyers said in a statement on Monday.