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Judge Blocks AG Barr’s Death Penalty Initiative: ‘Short-Circuiting Legitimate Judicial Process’ Doesn’t Serve the Public


A federal judge in the District of Columbia on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction, blocking the Department of Justice’s execution initiative from being carried out in order to “ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully.”

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan found as follows:

At least one of Plaintiffs’ claims has a likelihood of success on the merits and that absent a preliminary injunction, they will suffer irreparable harm. It further finds that the likely harm that Plaintiffs would suffer if this court does not grant injunctive relief far outweighs any potential harm to the Defendants. Finally, because the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully, this court finds that it is in the public interest to issue a preliminary injunction. Accordingly, each of Plaintiffs’ motions for preliminary injunctions is hereby GRANTED.

You can read the rest of the filing below.

The Department of Justice announced on July 25 that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would reinstitute capital punishment for the first time in nearly 20 years.

AG Barr directed the BOP to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol – “clearing the way” for the federal government to resume prisoner executions. Under the now-adopted Addendum, a single drug – pentobarbital – would replace the three-drug cocktail previously administered in federal executions. The pentobarbital replacement method has been utilized by 14 states in more than 200 executions since 2010. Barr also announced the dates of the first five executions (they were scheduled to take place between December 9 and January 15), beginning with Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted of murdering an 8-year-old girl and her parents in 1999. The other four death row inmates with scheduled execution dates were Wesley Ira Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois, Dustin Lee Honken, and Lezmond Mitchell. Mitchell, unlike the others, didn’t file a complaint in Chutkan’s court, the filing noted.

“Because Plaintiffs are scheduled to be executed before their claims can be fully litigated, they have asked this court, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65 and Local Rule 65.1, to preliminarily enjoin the DOJ and BOP from executing them while they litigate their claims,” Chutkan wrote. “Having reviewed the parties’ filings, the record, and the relevant case law, and for the reasons set forth below, the court hereby GRANTS Plaintiffs’ Motions for Preliminary Injunction.”

The last person to be executed by the federal government was Louis Jones Jr., a Texas soldier convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering fellow Army solider Tracie McBride in 1995. Jones Jr. was executed in 2003.

Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the death row inmates, said in a statement obtained by Law&Crime that the Chutkan decision “prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress.”

“By granting the preliminary injunction, the court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method,” Nolan said.

After Barr announced the BOP would lift the moratorium on federal executions, two Duke University Law professors told Law&Crime that Barr’s effort would fail.

Duke University law professor James E. Coleman Jr. said the DOJ move was “just one more effort by the administration to pick off low-hanging fruit that gives its political base a sense that something is happening.”

“Like the president’s heated rhetoric, however, it is just thunder signifying nothing. The public is rapidly losing faith in the death penalty. This move will not change that trend,” Coleman Jr. said. Coleman Jr.’s colleague, Duke University law professor Brandon L. Garrett, agreed that the Barr announcement sounded “dramatic,” but pointed out that previous Attorneys General have tried this before and failed.

“However dramatic it may sound, the announcement that federal executions will resume certainly does not mean that we should expect to see them any time soon,” Garrett said. “First, lawyers will challenge the execution protocol; indeed there is already pending federal litigation. Second, jurors are increasingly rejecting death sentences in federal cases and in the states. The federal death penalty has continued to decline, and although Attorneys General have tried to revive it over the years, they have not succeeded.”

Death penalty injunction by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.