WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has set new dates to begin executing federal death-row inmates — including an Iowa man who killed five people — following a monthslong legal battle over the plan to resume the executions for the first time since 2003.
Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions, beginning in mid-July, of four inmates convicted of killing children. Three of the men, including Iowa drug kingpin Dustin Lee Honken, had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.
Honken’s execution is now set for July 17. Honken killed three witnesses and two children in 1993 in an attempt to hide his multistate methamphetamine dealing operation.
The Justice Department had scheduled five executions set to begin in December, but some of the inmates challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.
The department wouldn’t say why the executions of two of the inmates scheduled in December hadn’t been rescheduled.
Death penalty issue has been on political backburner
The move is likely to add a new front to the national conversation about criminal justice reform and raise interest in an issue that has largely lain dormant in recent years amid the culture battles that President Donald Trump already is waging on matters such as abortion and immigration in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
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The federal government’s initial effort was put on hold by a trial judge, and the federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the judge’s order. Lawyers for the inmates are asking the Supreme Court to order a halt to the process.
“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” Barr said in a statement. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The resumption comes as the federal prison has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars, including at least one death at USP Terre Haute, where they will take place. One inmate there has died from COVID-19.
Honken’s victims included 2 children
In addition to Honken, the inmates who will be executed are: Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.
Three of the executions — for Lee, Purkley and Honken — are scheduled days apart beginning July 13. Nelson’s execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date.
Honken, formerly of Britt, and his then-girlfriend Angela Johnson were convicted in the 1993 slayings, an attempt to prevent an investigation into his sophisticated drug business.
The victims were two former dealers for Honken who became police informers, one of their girlfriends and her two children, ages 6 and 10, who were home when Honken and Johnson came to find the adults.
Honken and Johnson buried the bodies in a wooded area near Mason City, but it was years before they were discovered. In 2000, while booked in the Benton County Jail, Johnson drew a map of the gravesites for another inmate, who turned out to be a jailhouse informer.
Honken, who is now 52 years old, was convicted in 2004 and sentenced in 2005 to death.
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In an exclusive interview with The Gazette moments before he was sentenced in Cedar Rapids federal court, Honken, then 37, denied he killed the five victims, but said he knew who did.
Nonetheless, he said, he was “not worried about” the death penalty.
“It doesn’t even faze me,” he said then. “I’m not acting like I’m some kind of brave dude,” he said, noting it would be years before he’s actually executed.
Federal executions are rare
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 hasn’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.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
The attorney general said last July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume. He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Barr told the AP in November that the federal Bureau of Prisons had been testing and conducting practice drills ahead of the first execution. He would not say where the drugs would come from.
Those chosen were among inmates who had exhausted their appeals, and the cases were forwarded to senior Justice Department officials who reviewed the cases and made recommendations to him, Barr said.
President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
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Lawyers for the men decried the Justice Department’s decision to move ahead with the executions.
Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Danny Lee, said the government relied on “junk science and false evidence” in his case and said he is trying to get a court to consider problems in his case. A federal judge denied Lee’s request for a new trial but noted that evidence presented by his attorneys “is reasonably likely” to have led to a different sentence.
“Given all of these circumstances, it would be unconscionable for the government to execute Danny Lee,” Friedman said.
Purkey’s attorney, Rebecca Woodman, said her client suffers from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and doesn’t understand why the government plans to execute him. “No execution should proceed unless and until the question of Wes’s competency is resolved,” she said.
And an attorney for Honken, Shawn Nolan, said Honken’s trial and sentencing proceeding were “plagued by misconduct and the ineffectiveness of counsel” and said he was been denied a full and fair review of the alleged defects in the case. Nolan described Honken as a “deeply remorseful and devout Catholic and loving father of two children.”
An attorney for Nelson did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The Gazette contributed to this report.