U.S. judge blocks federal execution over victims' family coronavirus fears

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge blocked the first execution of a federal prisoner in 17 years from being carried out on Monday after some of the victims' relatives sued, saying they feared that attending could expose them to COVID-19.

Daniel Lewis Lee was convicted alongside another man for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family in 1996. Some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence.

Those relatives said they nonetheless had a right to attend the execution if it took place, and sued the Department of Justice in the U.S. district court in Indianapolis to block the execution until the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson issued an injunction on Friday ordering the Justice Department to delay the execution until it can show it is observing the right of the victims' relatives to attend without a risk to their health.

The Justice Department filed a notice in the Indianapolis court that it would appeal the injunction.

Earlene Peterson, whose daughter Nancy Mueller and 8-year-old granddaughter Sarah Powell were killed by Lee and a co-conspirator, had told the court she faced "the impossible choice of either not exercising my right to attend the execution, or traveling in dangerous conditions which could cause me to become very sick, or even die."

Baker Kurrus, a lawyer for Peterson and two other relatives, said in a statement they were grateful for the ruling.

"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 in a statement.

The Justice Department said it would not comment on ongoing litigation.

Attorney General William Barr announced last July that the Justice Department would resume carrying out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row.

He originally scheduled five executions for last December, but was ordered to delay them by a federal judge in Washington while long-running lawsuits challenging the government's lethal-injection protocol played out.

An appeals court overturned that injunction in April, and Barr announced new execution dates for July and August of four inmates, all men convicted murdering children: Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson.

Purkey's execution was scheduled for Wednesday, but a federal appeals court issued a temporary stay this month and it was not clear whether it would proceed. Honken's is set for Friday.

Lee's death by lethal injections of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, had been scheduled for Monday at the Justice Department's execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch; Editing by Sandra Maler, Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio)