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Victims’ relatives seek to delay federal execution, saying pandemic poses ‘grave risk’ if they attend

Attorney General William P. Barr arrives at the White House for a Cabinet meeting in May.
Attorney General William P. Barr arrives at the White House for a Cabinet meeting in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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With federal executions scheduled to resume next week after a nearly two-decade suspension, relatives of some victims and spiritual advisers for the condemned have called for a delay because, they say, it is unsafe for them to attend during the coronavirus pandemic.

The victims’ relatives said they are among those allowed to witness the federal government’s execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, scheduled for Monday. In 1999, Lee and another man were convicted of murdering a family of three, among them Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

In court papers filed Tuesday, three of their relatives — Earlene Branch Peterson, Mueller’s mother; Kimma Gurel, Mueller’s sister; and Monica Veillette, Mueller’s niece — called for the execution to be pushed to a later date, arguing there “is no legitimate reason” to carry it out amid the health crisis.

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They added their voices to an increasing volley of court filings and public calls — including one from hundreds of faith leaders also released Tuesday — seeking to postpone or cancel the scheduled federal executions.

Three are scheduled to take place next week. A fourth is scheduled for late August. In all four cases, the condemned inmates were convicted of murdering children, and the Justice Department says their executions must proceed without further delay.

Mueller’s relatives are seeking to join a lawsuit filed last week by a Buddhist priest and spiritual adviser to Wesley Purkey, who is scheduled to be executed two days after Lee.

The lawsuit filed by the Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, 68, says that Hartkemeyer has health problems and calls for Purkey’s lethal injection to be postponed, also due to the coronavirus. It argues that Hartkemeyer could be endangered if he attends, so having the execution as planned means he “must decide whether to risk his own life in order to exercise his religious obligations to be present.”

Coronavirus infections have broken out at numerous jails and prisons nationwide, spreading to the incarcerated and staff alike.

In response to Hartkemeyer’s lawsuit, the Justice Department said it was taking “extensive” precautions to protect witnesses including him, such as providing him protective equipment and spacing at the prison. The department said postponing because of the coronavirus could “indefinitely delay” the execution.

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The Justice Department has also scheduled a third execution for later next week. A spiritual adviser in that case — Father Mark O’Keefe, a Catholic priest — filed his own motion Tuesday also seeking to join Hartkemeyer’s case. O’Keefe’s suit said he also wanted to delay the execution until he “can carry out his sacred religious duty without jeopardizing his life and health in the middle of a surging pandemic.”

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment Tuesday on the filings.

The federal government last executed an inmate in 2003. Last year, Attorney General William P. Barr announced plans to resume carrying out death sentences, with officials scheduling multiple executions and laying out a new plan to use a single drug — pentobarbital — to carry out lethal injections.

Court challenges wound up blocking them from taking place as initially scheduled. Last week, the Supreme Court turned down a challenge to the new federal death penalty protocols, declining to take up a lawsuit filed by four death-row inmates. Other litigation still is pending, according to Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee.

Last month, Barr had again announced a schedule for resuming federal executions, saying officials would carry four out this summer.

“The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws,” Barr said. “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.”

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Some relatives of these victims have previously spoken out against these plans, including Peterson, Mueller’s mother, and some of her relatives.

Peterson argued in a video statement last year that she did not want Lee to be executed, calling instead for him to face a life sentence. Other relatives similarly said it was unfair Lee was sentenced to death while his accomplice in the case was sentenced to life in prison.

Other voices had similarly called for the executions to be called off, including hundreds of murder victims’ relatives, current and former law enforcement officials and ex-judges, who signed onto letters last year seeking to stop the lethal injections as originally scheduled.

Before the filing from Peterson and her relatives Tuesday, a group of faith leaders issued a joint statement saying they also wanted the scheduled executions stopped.