The Supreme Court ruled early Tuesday that the first federal executions could be carried out in 17 years.
The judges ruled 5-4 hours after a temporary U.S. district judge prevented four inmates from being executed.
Daniel Lewis Lee was originally scheduled to receive a lethal dose of the potent sedative pentobarbital on Monday at 4 p.m. ET, but a federal judge’s order prevented his execution.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned majority opinion on Tuesday states that “the plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they are likely to succeed in their request for the eighth amendment”
The eighth amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion states that the executions can proceed as planned. All four executions are scheduled to take place in Terre Haute, Indiana, USA.
District judge Tanya Chutkan had ruled Monday morning that three death row inmates and a fourth, scheduled for execution in August, could pursue her allegation that the federal government’s plan to use a single drug causes severe pain and unnecessary suffering would.
They claimed that the drug protocol using barbiturate pentobarbital disrupts breathing before the heart is stopped, causing a feeling of drowning and suffocation, leading to extreme terror and panic.
Two more executions are planned this week: Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday and Dustin Lee Honken on Friday. Keith Dwayne Nelson is due to be executed in August.
In 1996, Lee and four other members of a white supremacist organization went on a killing spree, including the murders of arms dealer William Mueller, his wife Nancy, and their 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell. All five defendants were arrested and sentenced.
The four liberal Supreme Court judges contradicted Tuesday’s order to continue the execution.
Judge Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, followed by Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in which he wrote that there were “significant questions” about the constitutionality of the method that the government would use.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent, which Ginsburg and judge Elena Kagan also shared, that the Supreme Court “accepts the government’s artificial urgency to cut off ordinary judicial review procedures.”
“This court is now upholding the government’s last-minute request to vacate so that convicted inmates can be executed before a court can properly review whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual,” Kagan wrote in part.
The decision to advance Lee’s execution during a coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and devastated prisons across the country has been under scrutiny by civil rights groups and the family of Lee’s victims.
It has been criticized as a dangerous and political move. Critics argue that the government is creating an unnecessary and fabricated urgency for an issue that is not currently high on the list of American concerns. It is also likely that the national discussion on reforming the criminal justice system ahead of the 2020 elections will get a new front.
US lawyer William Barr last year instructed the Department of Justice to issue a new death penalty enforcement rule to restore executions to the federal system.
Barr instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons in June to plan the executions of Lee, Purkey, Honken, and Nelson.
He said in a statement at the time that the four had been given “full and fair trial” and that the government owes the victims and their families to enforce the sentences.