The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal wrangling and delays.

Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Indiana, July 13, 2020.
Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Indiana, July 13, 2020. (AP)

A former white supremacist convicted of murdering a family of three in 1996 has been put to death by lethal injection has been put to death in the first federal execution in the United States in 17 years, the Justice Department said.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was pronounced dead at 1207GMT on Tuesday at Terre Haute prison in Indiana, the department said in a statement.

Lee is the first of three federal inmates scheduled to be executed this week.

Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, and another man were convicted of murdering the Arkansas family during a robbery intended to help fund the founding of an "Aryan Peoples Republic".

Lee proclaimed his innocence in his final statement, according to a reporter from a local newspaper who witnessed the execution.

"You're killing an innocent man," the Indianapolis Star quoted Lee as saying.

Lee's execution had been scheduled for Monday but was temporarily halted by a judge who wanted to allow for legal challenges to the drug that was to be used to put the federal inmates to death.

The Supreme Court lifted the lower court order overnight, however, and cleared the way for the executions.

Outcry from victims' family

The decision to move forward with the first execution by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 – and two others scheduled later in the week – drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and the relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has killed more than 135,000 people in the US and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

Critics argued the government was creating an unnecessary and manufactured urgency for political gain.

One of Lee's lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was "shameful that the government saw fit to carry out this execution during a pandemic".

“And it is beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste," Friedman said in a statement.

The developments are likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Attorney General William Barr has said the Justice Department has a duty to carry out the sentences imposed by the courts, including the death penalty, and provide closure to the victims and those in the communities where the killings happened.

But relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 opposed that idea and argued Lee deserved life in prison. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf.

“For us it is a matter of being there and saying, 'this is not being done in our name; we do not want this',” relative Monica Veillette said.

White supremacist organisation

Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organisation, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 120 kilometres northwest of Little Rock.

At their 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.

Decline in federal executions

Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 – most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Though there hadn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

Numbers of state executions have fallen steadily since the 2003 federal execution, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. States put to death 59 people in 2004 and 22 in 2019.

READ MORE: Arkansas executions a milestone for American capital punishment

Source: TRTWorld and agencies