LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Family members of three people slain in Arkansas more than 20 years ago have been among the most vocal opponents to the federal government's plan to execute one of the men convicted of killing their loved ones.
That man, Daniel Lewis Lee, is first on the list of prisoners set to be killed as the Trump administration tries to bring back federal executions this week after an almost two-decade hiatus.
But relatives of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, who were killed in 1996, say that's not what they want. They have pleaded for years that Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, should receive the same life sentence as the ringleader in a deadly scheme that aimed to establish a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
Hours after the scheduled time for Lee’s execution, it was unclear whether any of the executions would go forward. The family members say their grief is compounded by the push to execute the 47-year-old Lee in the middle of a pandemic.
“As a supporter of President Trump, I pray that he will hear my message: the scheduled execution of Danny Lee for the murder of my daughter and granddaughter is not what I want and would bring my family more pain," Earlene Peterson, Nancy's mother and Sarah's grandmother, said in a statement last month.
Family members say the government is forcing them to put their lives at risk if they travel during the coronavirus pandemic to witness Lee's execution. Peterson; her granddaughter Monica Veillette; and Kimma Gurel, Nancy Mueller’s sister and Sarah’s aunt, asked a judge for a delay, which a judge initially granted.
That decision was overturned as lawyers for the federal government, Lee and others fought in court in the days leading up to the execution.
Peterson, 81, lives in Arkansas, while Veillette and Gurel live in Washington state.
An attorney for the relatives who object to the execution said they hadn’t traveled to Indiana as of Monday morning. A Justice Department official said other members of the family were still planning to attend.
Some would have to travel thousands of miles to witness the execution in a small room in which the social distancing needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is virtually impossible.
“It feels disingenuous to me for someone to say they're doing this in our family's name and for us, and no one's taken into account our well-being and health," Veillette said.
She said other relatives want to witness the execution to counter the government's argument that it's 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,'" she said.
Lee's execution would be only the third carried out in the U.S. since March due to concerns about COVID-19. Missouri executed an inmate in May, and Texas executed a man last week.
The federal executions will bring together lawyers, victims' families, media and others from other communities, which could pose a public health risk. By late June, more than 57,000 inmates at state and federal prisons had tested positive for the virus, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press
“You are creating a petri dish, and then you’re bringing that into the prison, and the prison is already a hot spot for the virus," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Bureau of Prisons says it's implementing safety measures that include conducting temperature checks and requiring witnesses to wear masks.
Lee's attorneys have pressed their case that his death sentence is unfair, and cited evidence from his trial that Chevie Kehoe, the alleged ringleader, actually killed Sarah.
Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 for his white supremacist organization. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of the Muellers and Sarah in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) 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 them, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a bayou.
Kehoe and Lee were both convicted of murder. The lead prosecutor and judge from Lee’s trial have in recent years called the disparity in their sentences unfair.
“Perhaps more than anything else, this case illustrates that the most carefully crafted capital punishment regime in the hands of the humans who must carry it out can never be completely free of arbitrariness in all of its implementations,” Judge G. Thomas Eisele wrote in a 2008 ruling denying Lee’s request to set aside his death sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month cleared the way for Lee and three other federal inmates to be put to death. The other three are slated to die for killing people from Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
AP writer Michael Balsamo in Terre Haute, Indiana, and former AP writer Hannah Grabenstein contributed to this report.
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