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Iowa killer set to die Friday by lethal injection

Federal executions resume after 17 years

Dustin Honken is led October 11, 2005, by federal marshals into the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids before his senten
Dustin Honken is led October 11, 2005, by federal marshals into the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids before his sentencing. A federal jury found the methamphetamine dealer guilty of murder and conspiracy. He is set to be executed this week. (The Gazette)

A week of the first federal executions in 17 years — including of an Iowa killer on death row since 2004 — began early Tuesday after a harried round of on-again, off-again court rulings.

Federal officials executed Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, who was convicted in 1999 of killing a family of three, at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

Lee was pronounced dead from a lethal injection at 8:07 a.m., the Bureau of Prisons said.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said when asked if he wanted to make a final statement, according to a pool report. His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”

Although the death penalty has been in decline nationwide for years, the Justice Department has pushed against that trend for nearly a year. The department has argued it needed to carry out lawful federal sentences, citing the gravity of the crimes involved.

Last year, the department laid out a new lethal injection protocol — using one drug, pentobarbital — and said it would begin carrying out executions, leading to extended legal challenges. Attorney General William Barr had said recently that officials “owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind.”

Lee had challenged his execution on his own and along with other death-row inmates. His execution was also opposed by some relatives of his victims, who argued against his death sentence and sought to stop it from taking place amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A series of competing court rulings leading up to the execution included one from a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeal — in which two Iowa judges patinated.

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Appeals Court Judge Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids wrote a strongly worded dissent against the execution, citing Lee’s argument of government misdeeds.

“Lee’s allegations show an arguable case of intentional government misconduct and an extraordinary case in which the risk of injustice to Lee and the threat of undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process potentially merit relief,” she wrote.

However, two of the other judges on the panel — including Judge Steven Colloton of Des Moines — ruled the execution could proceed.

But another appeals court said late Monday it would not let the executions take place as planned. A divided Supreme Court then weighed in overnight, saying they could.

In an unsigned 5-4 order, the court’s conservative justices said the prisoners on death row had “not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention.”

Although the exact author is unclear, the opinion was the work of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The court’s four liberal justices wrote two dissents. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, said the court was “hastily” ending the inmates’ challenges. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Ginsburg, reiterated his view that the court should examine whether the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Lee and another man were convicted of murdering three people, including Nancy Mueller and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.

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He and this other man, Chevie Kehoe, were part of a group intending to create a white supremacist community in the Pacific Northwest, and they traveled to Arkansas in 1996 where they robbed and murdered William Mueller, a firearms dealer, along with his wife and the child, court records show. The men placed plastic bags over their heads and threw them into a bayou, the records show.

Relatives of victims in the case had fought against Lee’s execution, asking that it be called off or at least postponed because of the coronavirus, saying they would have to put their lives at risk to witness his death.

Two other men are scheduled to face lethal injections this week.

The two are Wesley Purkey, who was convicted in 2003 of raping and murdering Jennifer Long, a teenage girl, and Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted in 2004 of killing five people, including two young girls.

Purkey’s execution is scheduled for Wednesday, although another court has temporarily stayed it on other grounds. Honken’s is scheduled for Friday.

Though Iowa does not have the death penalty in state law, Honken — then a methamphetamine drug kingpin originally from Britt — was charged in federal court.

Authorities say that in 1993, Honken and his girlfriend, Angela Johnson, went looking for Gregory Nicholson, a dealer-turned-informer who had testified against Honken to a grand jury. They found him at a home with his girlfriend, Lori Duncan, and her two daughters — Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6.

Honken and Johnson took them to a rural field west of Mason City. There, the victims were bound, gagged and shot in the head.

Terry DeGeus, another dealer, disappeared months later after telling relatives he was meeting with Johnson.

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The bodies of four victims lay undetected until October 2000, when Johnson unwittingly talked in detail to a jailhouse informer in the Benton County Jail.

Prosecutors said Honken killed in an attempt to protect his drug business. A jury convened in Sioux City recommended the death penalty for Honken — the first time in 40 years that an Iowan was sentenced to death.

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