U.S. government executes woman for first time in nearly seven decades

By Bhargav Acharya and Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The United States executed Lisa Montgomery, a convicted murderer and the only woman on federal death row, early on Wednesday, making her the first female prisoner to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

Montgomery was convicted in 2007 in Missouri of kidnapping and strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, then eight months pregnant. Montgomery cut Stinnett’s fetus from the womb and tried to pass off the child as her own.

After Montgomery was strapped to a gurney in the government’s death chamber, a female executioner asked if she had any last words. Montgomery responded in a quiet, muffled voice, “No,” according to a reporter who served as a media witness.

Federal judges in multiple courts had delayed her execution to allow for hearings on whether she was too mentally ill to understand her punishment and whether the government had given insufficient notice of her execution date under law.

But around midnight the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority summarily dismissed the final obstacles, and Montgomery was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m. EST (0631 GMT) at the Department of Justice’s execution chamber at a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Some of Stinnett’s relatives attended as witnesses but declined to speak with the media, the Justice Department said.

Montgomery’s execution was opposed by United Nations human rights experts, several dozen former prosecutors, and multiple groups against violence to women, prompting debate over the role past trauma can play in some of the most horrific crimes prosecuted by the justice system.

Montgomery was the 11th person executed on federal death row since the practice was resumed last year under President Donald Trump, a Republican and an outspoken proponent of capital punishment. Before Trump, there had been only three federal executions since 1963.

Kelley Henry, Montgomery’s lawyer, called the execution “vicious, unlawful, and unnecessary exercise of authoritarian power.” Some doctors who examined Montgomery testified that her brain was structurally damaged and she suffered from psychosis, auditory hallucinations and other mental illness, exacerbated by the abuse and rapes she suffered at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

“No one can credibly dispute Mrs. Montgomery’s longstanding debilitating mental disease — diagnosed and treated for the first time by the Bureau of Prisons’ own doctors,” Henry said in a statement. “Our Constitution forbids the execution of a person who is unable to rationally understand her execution.”

Until this week, she had been held for many years at FMC Carswell in Texas, a federal hospital prison for female inmates with mental illness.

It was one of three executions the U.S. Department of Justice had scheduled for the final full week of Trump’s administration. Two other executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday have been delayed, for now at least, by a federal judge in Washington, to allow the condemned murderers to recover from COVID-19.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Howard Goller)

U.S. resets execution date for only woman on federal death row

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice has rescheduled the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a convicted murderer and the only woman on federal death row, to take place on Jan. 12, a few days before Joe Biden is due to be inaugurated as president of the United States.

Last week, a federal judge temporarily delayed the execution of Montgomery, which had been set for Dec. 8, to allow her two lead lawyers time to recover from COVID-19 in order to file a clemency petition asking President Donald Trump to commute the sentence to life in prison.

In his order, Judge Randolph Moss of the U.S. District Court in Washington ordered the Justice Department to not execute Montgomery before Dec. 31. The Justice Department filed a notice of the new Jan. 12 execution date with the court on Monday.

Trump’s administration resumed carrying out executions earlier this year after a 17-year hiatus, although a dwindling number of state governments have continued to do so throughout.

The federal government executed eight convicted murderers this year, the most federal executions in a single year since at least the 1920s, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Montgomery would be the first women to be executed by the federal government since 1953.

Besides that of Montgomery, Trump’s administration has scheduled four other executions before the Jan. 20 inauguration following the Nov. 3 elections.

Biden, once a supporter of capital punishment, has said he will work as president to end the federal death penalty.

Montgomery, 52, was convicted in 2007 in Missouri for strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant. Montgomery butchered Stinnett to cut the fetus from her womb. The child survived.

Montgomery’s lawyers say Montgomery admits her guilt but deserves clemency because she has long suffered severe mental illness, exacerbated by being gang raped by her stepfather and his friends during an abusive childhood.

Montgomery is being held at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, a prison for inmates with mental illness. Her lawyers say that she has been dressed in a “suicide smock” and given only a crayon with which to write.

“Now, despite Lisa’s deteriorating mental health and a much deeper understanding of the trauma she endured, the government plans to kill her,” Sandra Babcock, one of Montgomery’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No other woman has been executed for a similar crime, because most prosecutors have recognized that it is inevitably the product of trauma and mental illness.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Judge rules U.S. government’s lethal injections break law, halts execution

By Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely

(Reuters) – A U.S. District Court judge in Washington ruled on Thursday that the Justice Department’s new lethal injection protocol violated drug safety laws and ordered a planned execution for Friday to be halted.

Since resuming federal executions after a 17-year hiatus in July, the Department of Justice has been injecting condemned inmates with lethal doses of pentobarbital, a highly regulated barbiturate. The department executed three murderers in July and a fourth on Thursday and had planned to execute Keith Nelson on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that the department was breaking the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) by administering the pentobarbital without a medical practitioner’s prescription, agreeing with death row inmates who sued the government.

“Where the government argues that a lethal injection drug is legally and constitutionally permissible because it will ensure a ‘humane’ death, it cannot then disclaim a responsibility to comply with federal statutes enacted to ensure that the drugs operate humanely,” Chutkan wrote in a 13-page opinion.

Because pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell pentobarbital for use in executions, the Justice Department has said it is instead paying a pharmacist in secret to mix up small batches of the drug.

Chutkan ruled that this also violated the FDCA, which forbids pharmacists from making copies of drugs already available on the market after having received safety approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Justice Department lawyers immediately asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn Chutkan’s ruling.

That court has previously ruled that execution drugs are at least partly governed by drug safety laws. In 2013, it upheld an order, which continues to bind the FDA, that stopped imports of sodium thiopental that were headed to state execution chambers.

Prior to July, there had been only three federal executions since 1963, all between 2001 and 2003, all using sodium thiopental. As supplies of that drug vanished, Texas, Missouri and other states that use capital punishment switched to using pentobarbital, and the Justice Department announced last year it would follow suit.

Chutkan ruled that Nelson’s execution by lethal injection could proceed if the Justice Department avoided copying FDA-approved drugs and had a physician-issued prescription in the condemned prisoner’s name. The American Medical Association and other clinicians’ groups have said enabling an execution is against medical ethics.

The Justice Department has said it is necessary to promise secrecy to its pentobarbital suppliers. Soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the department spent two years building a small network of companies to make and test the drug, a Reuters investigation found.

Nelson, convicted of raping and murdering 10-year-old Pamela Butler in Kansas in 1999, is one of 16 inmates on federal death row who sued the Justice Department over its lethal injection protocol.

Chutkan issued orders blocking the inmates’ executions while the litigation continued, which were swiftly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, and three of the plaintiffs have since been executed by the defendants.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Toby Chopra and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. government plans to end week with third execution after 17-year hiatus

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A week that marked the return of capital punishment by the U.S. government after a 17-year hiatus was due to end on Friday with a third planned execution of a federal prisoner.

If President Donald Trump’s administration faces no legal obstacle in putting Dustin Lee Honken, a convicted murderer, to death by lethal injection at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT), it will have completed as many executions in a few days as happened in the preceding 57 years.

Lawyers for the condemned men have amassed legal challenges, which include arguments that the U.S. Department of Justice’s new one-drug lethal-injection protocol breaches a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

These arguments have been rejected twice this week in overnight rulings by a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court.

Dustin Honken was a dealer in illegal methamphetamine when he and his girlfriend murdered five people in Iowa in 1993, including two girls aged 10 and 6. He was convicted in 2004.

He is one of several inmates on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, who have said the new one-drug protocol, which replaces a three-drug protocol the government last used in 2003, would cause an unnecessarily painful death.

The litigation will continue in the U.S. District Court in Washington with the surviving inmates. Since last year, Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the cases, has ordered injunctions on three occasions delaying the scheduled executions to allow the legal challenges to play out. All three were overruled by the Supreme Court.

Two other men convicted of murdering children were executed in Terre Haute earlier this week: Daniel Lee on Tuesday, and Wesley Purkey on Thursday.

Families of the killers’ victims have been divided, reflecting broader public disagreement over capital punishment, which has been abolished by most other countries. Relatives of Lee’s victims pleaded for Trump to scrap Lee’s execution. The father of the 16-year-old girl murdered by Purkey told reporters that Purkey’s death brought some resolution to his grief.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, called it “a truly dark period for our country.” She joined the condemned men’s lawyers in criticizing higher courts in what they called a rush to short-circuit their legal rights.

While the Supreme Court’s conservative majority wrote that it had established that lethal injection was a constitutional method, some of the liberal justices complained new problems raised by the changed protocol were being dismissed too hastily.

“I remain convinced of the importance of reconsidering the constitutionality of the death penalty itself,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. executes Wesley Purkey, second federal execution in 17 years

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice executed convicted murderer Wesley Purkey on Thursday, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said, in the second federal execution in a week after a 17-year pause, over objections by his lawyers that he had dementia and no longer understood his punishment.

The execution had been blocked by a federal court, but the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday overruled it, just as it had done in another case on Tuesday, once again putting the federal government back in the business of executing prisoners.

Purkey, 68, was convicted in 2003 in Missouri of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl before dumping her dismembered and burned remains in a septic pond.

Purkey was pronounced dead at 8:19 a.m. EDT (1219 GMT) at the Justice Department’s execution chamber at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, the spokeswoman, Kristie Breshears said by phone.

His lawyers had argued he has brain damage and dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. They said that although he had accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer understood the reason for his execution and that killing him would breach the U.S. Constitution.

Before Tuesday, when the Justice Department executed convicted killer Daniel Lee in Terre Haute, the federal government had only executed three people since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003.

Lee had joined Purkey and other death row inmates in lawsuits challenging the legality of the government’s new one-drug lethal-injection protocol using pentobarbital, a barbiturate, which the Justice Department announced a year ago, replacing its three-drug protocol.

A federal judge agreed with a medical expert cited by the condemned men’s lawyers that the drug was likely to breach a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” by causing a painful drowning sensation as bloody fluid filled their lungs before they lost consciousness.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. judge blocks second federal execution in 17 years

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Washington blocked what would be the second federal execution in 17 years early on Wednesday, hours before it was due to take place, though her orders may yet be reversed as the U.S. Department of Justice challenges them in higher courts.

The Justice Department had planned to execute Wesley Purkey, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT) despite objections by Purkey’s lawyers that he has dementia and no longer understands his punishment.

Early on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington issued two injunctions to allow various legal challenges by some of the 61 inmates on federal death row to continue.

One of the injunctions also prevents the federal government from executing two other men convicted of murdering children: Dustin Honken is scheduled to be put to death on Friday and Keith Nelson on Aug. 28.

In issuing the broader injunction, Chutkan said the condemned men were likely to prevail in their argument that the Justice Department’s use of pentobarbital in lethal injections breaches the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which governs drug safety.

The Justice Department has argued that drug-safety laws do not apply when a drug is intended for use in an execution.

It is the third time Chutkan has issued an injunction delaying executions in the litigation over the legality of the Justice Department’s new one-drug protocol, which replaces the previous three-drug protocol it last used in 2003.

The first injunction was overturned by an appeals court in April.

The second, issued on Monday ahead of the scheduled execution of Daniel Lee, a convicted murderer and one of the plaintiffs in the litigation challenging the new execution protocol, was overturned by the Supreme Court at about 2 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Tuesday. Lee was executed a few hours later, the first federal execution in 17 years.

In the second injunction issued on Wednesday, which applies only to Purkey, Chutkan agreed with Purkey’s lawyers that his mental illness, including Alzheimer’s disease, means he no longer understands why he is being executed and should be afforded a so-called “competency hearing.”

The Supreme Court has previously ruled it is “abhorrent” and unconstitutional to execute someone whose mental illness prevents them from comprehending their punishment.

The Justice Department is appealing the injunctions.

Purkey, 68, was convicted in 2003 in Missouri. He dumped his victim’s dismembered and burned remains in a septic pond.

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru and Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by John Stonestreet and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. executes first prisoner in 17 years after Supreme Court gives OK at 2 a.m.

(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out its first execution in 17 years, putting to death convicted murderer Daniel Lee after the Supreme Court cleared the way with a ruling issued at two o’clock in the morning.

Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. EDT (1207 GMT), U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said by phone.

The execution had been held up by a U.S. District Court in Washington, which on Monday ordered the U.S. Justice Department to delay four executions scheduled for July and August. The order was later affirmed by an appellate court.

But at 2:10 a.m. (0610 GMT), about 10 hours after Lee’s execution was due to take place in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote cleared the way for federal executions to resume.

“The plaintiffs in this case have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a Federal Court. Last-minute stays like that issued this morning should be the extreme exception, not the norm,” the Supreme Court said.

Lee was convicted of killing three members of an Arkansas family in 1996, but some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence.

Strapped to a gurney, Lee was asked if had any last words, according to a media witness present in the viewing chamber.

“I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said, according to a reporter who witnessed the execution and issued a report for all media. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

As the drug was being administered, Lee raised his head to look around, and his breathing appeared to become labored, according to the pool report. Soon after, Lee’s chest was no longer moving, his lips turned blue and his fingers became ashy.

Two unnamed Bureau of Prisons officials and Lee’s spiritual adviser could be seen inside the execution chamber.

While several states conduct executions, the federal government had not done so since 2003.

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.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. judge delays first federal executions in 17 years

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A U.S. federal judge issued an injunction on Monday stopping what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years, scheduled for later in the day, to allow the continuation of legal challenges against the government’s lethal-injection protocol.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. district court in Washington ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to delay four executions the department had scheduled for July and August until further order of the court.

Efforts to resume capital punishment at the federal level were underway within a few months of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, ending a de facto moratorium that began under his predecessor, Barack Obama, while long-running legal challenges to lethal injections played out in federal courts.

Judge Chutkan has been overseeing cases brought by inmates on death row who argue that the Justice Department’s new one-drug protocol breaks various administrative and drug-control laws and is unconstitutional.

The Justice Department had planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee on Monday in Terre Haute, Indiana, using lethal injection of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, for his role in the murders of three members of an Arkansas family, including an 8-year-old child, in 1996.

Some relatives of Lee’s victims opposed him receiving the death sentence while his accomplice in the murders, Chevie Kehoe, was sentenced to life in prison.

The department had scheduled two more executions for later in the week and a fourth in August, of Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson, all convicted of murdering children.

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented some of the lawyers of inmates on death row from visiting their clients. At least one employee involved in the executions tested positive for COVID-19, the Justice Department said over the weekend.

On Sunday, an appeals court rejected an argument by some relatives of Lee’s victims, who sued for a delay saying they feared that attending his execution could expose them to the coronavirus.

FEDERAL EXECUTIONS RARE

While Texas, Missouri and other states execute multiple condemned inmates each year, federal executions are rare: only three have occurred since 1963, all from 2001 to 2003, including the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

There are currently 62 people on federal death row in Terre Haute.

Opposition to the death penalty has grown in the United States, although 54 percent of Americans said they supported it for people convicted of murder, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

In announcing the planned resumption of executions, Attorney General William Barr said last year: “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

A European Union ban on selling drugs for use in executions or torture has led to pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell such drugs to U.S. prison systems.

The Justice Department spent much of 2018 and 2019 building a secret supply chain of private companies to make and test its drug of choice, pentobarbital, which replaces the three-drug protocol used in previous executions. Some of the companies involved said they were not aware they were testing execution drugs, a Reuters investigation found last week.

As with Texas and other states, the Justice Department has commissioned a private pharmacy to make the drug.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney and Dan Grebler)

 

Khashoggi’s fiancee says execution of those convicted would conceal truth

ANKARA (Reuters) – The fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi described the sentencing of five people to death in relation to the killing as unfair and invalid, adding that their execution would further conceal the truth.

Khashoggi disappeared after going to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to obtain documents for his planned wedding. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building and his remains have not been found.

A Saudi court on Monday sentenced five people to death and three to jail over the murder, while dismissing charges against three others, finding them not guilty. A U.N. investigator accused Riyadh of making a “mockery” of justice by exonerating senior figures who may have ordered the killing.

The presiding Saudi court rejected the findings of a U.N. inquiry by ruling that the killing was not premeditated, rather carried out “at the spur of the moment”.

Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, was waiting outside the consulate when he went inside to retrieve the documents.

In a statement on Tuesday, Cengiz said the trial did not reveal why those convicted had killed Khashoggi because the trial was held behind closed doors.

“If these people are executed without any chance to speak or explain themselves, we might never know the truth behind this murder,” she said.

“I’m calling upon every authority in the world to condemn this kind of court decision and urgently prevent any execution, because this would just be another step in concealing the truth.”

“SHAM TRIAL”

Turkey said on Monday the trial outcome fell far short of serving justice, and on Tuesday Turkish Communications Director Fahrettin Altun slammed the verdict as an “insult to the intelligence of any fair observer”.

“The international media must pursue the case of Khashoggi until there is true accountability… Those responsible must face justice sooner or later,” Altun said on Twitter, calling the case a “sham trial”.

“This despicable murder was done at a diplomatic facility against every diplomatic norm imaginable! We will follow this case to the end regardless (of) how high it goes.”

The murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and critic of the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, caused a global outcry, and some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said they believed the prince ordered the killing.

Saudi officials say he had no role, though in September the crown prince indicated some personal accountability, saying “it happened under my watch”.

After Monday’s verdict, a source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments said key U.S. government agencies rejected the validity of the court proceedings and CIA experts still believed Prince Mohammad personally ordered, or at least approved of, the killing.

The source said the five men condemned to death were essentially foot soldiers in the killing, while two senior security officials acquitted played a more significant role.

(Reporting by Yesim Dikmen, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Daren Butler, Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)

Texas to execute man convicted of abducting, strangling college student

FILE PHOTO: Death-row inmate Larry Swearingen is shown in this photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S., provided August 20, 2019. Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A man who has maintained his innocence and whose lawyers have argued the state ignored key evidence that would exonerate him is scheduled to be put to death in Texas on Wednesday for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old college student.

Larry Swearingen, 48, who faced five previous execution dates over the past two decades, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at the state’s death chamber in Huntsville.

A jury convicted and sentenced Swearingen to die in 2000 for the murder of Melissa Trotter, who disappeared on Dec. 8, 1998. Trotter was found dead 25 days later in a densely wooded area in the Sam Houston National Forest with a piece of pantyhose around her neck.

During Swearingen’s trial, prosecutors laid out a case based on witness testimony, cellphone records and evidence found in his house and truck that they said linked him to her death.

Prosecutors said that on the day Trotter went missing, a witness saw her with a man leaving the Lone Star College–Montgomery library, in The Woodlands, Texas, where she attended school. The Woodlands is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Houston.

They also said that cellphone records showed Swearingen traveled from his home two hours later to Sam Houston National Forest, where Trotter’s body was found.

Investigators collected hair and fibers belonging to Trotter from Swearingen’s home and truck. In his house, they also discovered her lighter, cigarettes and pantyhose, half of which was found wrapped around her neck when her body was found, according to court documents.

Swearingen was arrested three days after Trotter went missing. In jail, he tried to write a letter in Spanish in which he claimed to be someone else who had knowledge of the murder. In the letter, Swearingen corroborated details of the evidence in the case, court documents showed.

He also told a cellmate that he committed capital murder and planned to escape the death penalty, according to court documents.

Swearingen has professed his innocence for the past two decades. In a series of appeals that have wound through Texas and federal courts, his lawyers have challenged the state’s DNA testing in the case and had experts testify that the decomposition of Trotter’s body showed it was dumped in the woods after Swearingen was in custody.

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Swearingen’s request for clemency.

Swearingen would be the 12th inmate executed in the United States and the fourth in Texas in 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney)