A judge has blocked the scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates, effectively stopping the Trump administration’s effort to continue inflicting the death penalty in a national system that saw its last execution more than a decade and a half ago.
The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials intended to carry out starting next month.
The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
In July, Attorney General William Barr announced plans to resume executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He implied the practice had been allowed to languish for too long and said it would deliver justice in cases involving what he called the “worst criminals.”
Barr announced a new federal death penalty protocol that would use a single drug, pentobarbital, instead of a three-drug “cocktail” employed in the most recent federal executions.
In the wake of Barr’s announcement, a series of death row inmates enteredered a long-dormant legal challenge to that previous method. They asked Chutkan to block their executions under the new protocol until their legal challenges to it were fully adjudicated.
In her ruling Wednesday, Chutkan stated the death row inmates appeared likely to prevail on their arguments that the new protocol violates longstanding federal law because the procedures to be used vary from state law. A 1994 federal statute says federal executions shall be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.”
Justice Department attorneys contended that the use of lethal injection was sufficiently similar despite the drugs used or other details of the execution protocol. Still, Chutkan ruled that the law likely requires federal authorities to utilize the same drugs or drugs and a similar process.
“Requiring the federal government to follow more than just the state’s method of execution is consistent with other sections of the statute and with historical practices. For all these reasons, this court finds that the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act] does not authorize the creation of a single implementation procedure for federal executions,” wrote the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
“There is no statute that gives the [Bureau of Prisons] or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan added.
In imparting the injunction, Chutkan noted the apparent fact that allowing the executions would deny the inmates of their ability to continue their legal challenges. She also fled from the Justice Department’s claim that time was of the essence, noting that revisions to the federal death penalty protocol failed for years after shortages developed of at least one drug used in the earlier three-drug cocktail.
The earliest of the five executions that federal officials planned to carry out in the coming weeks was scheduled for Dec. 9.
“While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” the judge wrote.