A judge on Friday blocked the Justice Department from carrying out its plans for the first federal execution since 2003, siding with victims’ relatives who had argued against it taking place during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlene Branch Peterson, Mueller’s mother, and two other relatives argued in court filings this week that the execution should be delayed because of the pandemic, saying there was “no legitimate reason” to carry it out amid the health crisis and writing that they faced significant risks if they traveled to attend a lethal injection inside a federal prison.
In the injunction issued Friday, Jane E. Magnus-Stinson, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, wrote that the order would be lifted if federal authorities showed a “reasonable consideration of the plaintiffs’ right to be present for the execution.”
Under the Federal Death Penalty Act, executions should be carried out under “the law of the state” where the sentence in the case occurred — in this case, Arkansas, which gives “significant rights to victims’ family members,” the judge wrote in her 14-page order. Magnus-Stinson also wrote that the public had an interest in treating the relatives “with fairness, respect, and dignity” and said that it appeared the Justice Department “gave no consideration to their rights whatsoever.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which has two other executions scheduled for next week, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The department later filed a notice that it was appealing the order.
Peterson and the other two relatives — Kimma Gurel, Mueller’s sister, and Monica Veillette, Mueller’s niece — said in court filings that they all have health issues that would place them at a higher risk of developing complications if they contracted the coronavirus.
If they chose to attend the execution as witnesses, the relatives argued, they would “put their own lives at grave risk.”
The Justice Department had argued in response that it was “prepared to take an extensive array of precautions to mitigate the risk” — among them offering protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gowns, and limiting their interactions with other people.
In its response, the department also said that if executions were put on hold until there was a treatment or a vaccine for the virus, as requested, it would create “an indefinite delay.” The department added that while it sought to help victims’ relatives attend executions, federal officials are not required to schedule them based on when witnesses can attend.
“Although the government endeavors to facilitate attendance by victims’ family members who wish to attend a scheduled execution, no permissible witness has a statutory entitlement to attend the execution,” the department wrote in its response.
The Justice Department announced last year that it planned to resume executions for the first time since 2003. Those plans, initially scheduled to begin last year, involved a new lethal-injection protocol, which was challenged in court. The Supreme Court declined last month to take up a challenge to the protocol.
An attorney for the three women said they were grateful for the order.
“The family is hopeful that the federal government will support them by not appealing today’s ruling, a reversal of which would put them back in the untenable position of choosing between attending the execution at great risk to their health and safety, or forgoing this event they have long wanted to be present for,” attorney Baker Kurrus said in a statement.
“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,” Kurrus said.
Peterson had previously spoken out against the execution, saying Lee should be sentenced to life in prison rather than death, the same punishment given to the other man convicted in the case.
The two other executions scheduled for next week — one Wednesday and the other Friday — are facing similar legal challenges, including from spiritual advisers for both condemned inmates. These advisers argue that carrying out the executions during the pandemic also puts them at risk.