Honken was convicted of killing five people, including two young children, and sentenced to death. In 1993, Honken was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges, after which he and his girlfriend kidnapped and murdered a federal witness, the witness’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s daughters, a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old, court records show. Months later, they also murdered another potential witness.
Before the execution began, Honken briefly spoke, according to a pool report from a media witness. He did not address the victims’ relatives bearing witness. His last words were, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me.”
Honken’s lethal injection came on the heels of federal officials carrying out two other executions in Indiana, ending a 17-year hiatus.
On Tuesday morning, the federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted for his role in killing a family of three. Two days later, it executed Wesley Purkey, convicted of raping and murdering 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Honken’s execution appeared to take longer than the previous two, according to the media witness.
Federal executions had been a rarity. In the decades since the federal death penalty statute’s reinstatement in 1988 and then its expansion in 1994, the United States government had carried out three executions — the same number conducted this week.
In 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. Not long after, Juan Raul Garza was executed for murdering three men. And Louis Jones Jr. was executed in 2003 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old Army recruit.
Since then, the federal government has continued to seek and win death sentences, including for high-profile criminals such as the surviving Boston Marathon bomber and the gunman who massacred black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C.
But it had not carried out any executions over that span, with Justice Department officials working to review their lethal-injection procedures — and acknowledging even as they won death sentences that they still did not have the necessary drugs on hand.
The death penalty has declined significantly in recent years, with fewer death sentences and executions. There were 22 executions in 2019, down from 98 in 1999.
Since the last federal execution, several states have moved away from the death penalty, including New Hampshire, which last year became the 21st state to abolish capital punishment.
The Justice Department had initially planned to restart executions last year along a similarly busy timeline. Attorney General William P. Barr announced last summer that it would begin carrying out executions again with a new lethal-injection protocol — using only the drug pentobarbital — and scheduled three executions over five days in December.
But those plans were scuttled by legal challenges to the protocol, which was eventually upheld in court. Then this week, with the scheduled executions looming, they were repeatedly put on hold, then given the green light through a tangled web of legal battles.
A federal judge in the District issued an order Monday and another Wednesday stopping the executions scheduled for those days, as well as the others the Justice Department had scheduled, including Honken’s. Other court orders similarly blocked them.
The challenges eventually rose to the Supreme Court. The scheduled execution times on Monday and Wednesday came and went. The high court issued orders after 2 a.m. Tuesday and then again around a similar time early Thursday saying both executions could proceed.
In both cases, the court’s conservative justices allowed the executions to proceed in 5-to-4 orders, while the liberal justices wrote dissents objecting. In both cases, the executions eventually were carried out the following morning.
Purkey’s execution, meanwhile, was challenged by his attorneys, who said he was not mentally competent and thus should not be executed, something the Justice Department pushed back against in court. His spiritual adviser, and another for Honken, also asked that the execution not be held during the pandemic. The Supreme Court eventually ruled against these arguments and said his execution could proceed.
Honken’s attorney, Shawn Nolan, said in a statement after his execution Friday that his client had redeemed himself while behind bars.
“He recognized and repented for the crimes he had committed, and spent his time in prison atoning for them,” Nolan said in a statement.
Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said that Honken had “coldly ended the lives of five people, including two young girls, all in an effort to protect himself and his criminal enterprise,” and “finally faced justice.”
The three executions provoked vocal opposition from some religious leaders and sharply different responses from some of the victims’ relatives.
In Lee’s case, some relatives of his victims opposed his death sentence and then fought against the execution being scheduled during the pandemic.
They denounced it before and after the lethal injection took place, with one relative saying she was sad and angry about it happening. In Purkey’s case, his victim’s father praised the execution after it happened and criticized the length of time it took to occur.
After Honken’s execution, relatives of his victims released statements saying that it would “bring a sense of closure,” while they would still live with their losses. Others said they were there “not to watch a man die” but “to show love, support and respect” for Terry DeGeus, one of the victims in the case.
“It was the least we could do,” DeGeus’s family said in the statement.