US government orders first executions since 2003

Attorney General William BarrImage copyright

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“The justice department upholds the rule of law and we owe it to the victims and their families,” said Attorney General William Barr

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

Attorney General William Barr 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.

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.”

There are 62 inmates on federal death row, but the last federal execution was in 2003. In a statement released on Thursday, Mr Barr said executions would resume with the deaths of five inmates “convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society – children and the elderly”.

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The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

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.

Mr Barr instructed the BOP to adopt an addendum that allows them 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.

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 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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