US government orders first federal executions since 2003

William Barr
William Barr will step down on 23 December, President Trump said

The US federal government is to resume executing death-row inmates after a 16-year hiatus, the justice department has announced.

Attorney General William Barr said in a statement he had directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to schedule the executions of five inmates.

Mr Barr said the five had been convicted of murders or rapes of children or the elderly.

The executions have been scheduled for December 2019 and January 2020.

“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals,” Mr Barr said in a statement. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law – and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The announcement lifts what was an informal moratorium on the federal death penalty since the 2003 execution of Louis Jones Jr, a 53-year-old a Gulf War veteran, for the kidnap and murder of 19-year-old soldier Tracie Joy McBride.

The death penalty was outlawed at state and federal level by a 1972 Supreme Court decision but reinstated in 1988. According to data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center, 78 people were sentenced to death between 1988 and 2018 but only three have been since executed. There are 62 inmates currently on federal death row.

Mr Barr said he had instructed the BOP to adopt an addendum that allows it to use the single drug Pentobarbital in place of a three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions. The drug is a potent sedative that slows down the body, including the nervous system, to the point of death.

The Department of Justice said the five scheduled executions were for Daniel Lee Lewis, who killed a family of three including an eight-year-old girl; Lezmond Mitchell, who killed a 63-year-old woman and her nine-year old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, who raped and killed a 16-year-old girl and murdered an 80-year-old woman; Alfred Bourgeois, who molested and killed his two-year-old daughter; and Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people including two children.

The five executions would take place at the US Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, and additional executions would take place at a later date, the justice department said.

Capital punishment in the US

  • The death penalty is a legal punishment in 29 US states
  • Since 1976, Texas has carried out the most executions (561), followed by Virginia (113) and Oklahoma (112)
  • There are 2,673 inmates on death row in the US
  • California has the most prisoners on death row – 733 – but has carried out only 13 executions since 1976
  • The annual number of death sentences fell by 85% between 1998 and 2018 – from 295 to 43

Source: Death Penalty Information Center


Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter

For more than a decade and a half, the federal death penalty was mostly an afterthought. Although there was no formal moratorium on the procedure, as there was in some states where opposition to executions has been growing, a combination of administrative inertia, protracted appeals processes, practical obstacles and the relatively few number of federal death-row inmates combined to grind executions to a de-facto halt.

The Trump administration now wants to change that, even if a shortage of the drugs used in lethal injections remains a significant obstacle.

The president has expressed a harsh attitude toward convicted criminals in the past, claiming that they are treated too gently and given too many opportunities to appeal against their sentences.

While a majority of Americans say they still favour the death penalty in certain instances, opinion surveys indicate that the American public is turning against capital punishment, with a particular eye toward allegations that it is frequently unjustly imposed.

That suggests that while the Trump administration’s announcement will draw some sharp criticism from activists, it is unlikely to cause significant political waves.


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