Public Safety

Execution for Iowa mass killer Dustin Honken on hold

Drug dealer who murdered 5 in 1993 on federal death row

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. (The Gazette)
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. (The Gazette)

An Iowa drug kingpin who killed three witnesses and two children in 1993 in an attempt to hide his multistate methamphetamine dealing operation has won a reprieve 56 days before he was set to be executed.

The federal death penalty against Dustin Lee Honken, now 51, is one of four executions put on hold late Wednesday by a judge who found that a proposal from U.S. Attorney General William Barr to resume executions after a 16-year moratorium appears to be at odds with federal law.

Honken, on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., was scheduled to die by lethal injection Jan. 15.

But U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan of the District of Columbia ruled that he and the other three inmates scheduled to be executed within the next two months were likely to succeed in their arguments that Barr’s proposal to execute them all using one type of lethal injection contradicts the Federal Death Penalty Act.

“Plaintiffs have clearly shown that, absent injunctive relief, they will suffer the irreparable harm of being executed under a potentially unlawful procedure before their claims can be fully adjudicated,” wrote Chutkan, an Obama appointee.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Barr announced plans in July to resume the federal death penalty under a new lethal injection protocol, saying the Justice Department “owe(s) it to the victims and their families” to carry out executions after years of languishing. A federal execution has not been carried out since 2003; the Obama administration said in 2011 it couldn’t execute federal prisoners because it did not have access to the necessary drugs.

But under the new plan, Barr proposed a simplified method of lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than using a three-drug cocktail.

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The problem with this policy, Chutkan wrote, is that appears to contradict the Federal Death Penalty Act’s requirement that death row inmates be executed “in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction.” Creating a uniform federal method is “very likely” beyond the attorney general’s authority, the judge said.

In July, the Federal Bureau of Prisons also scheduled the execution of a fifth man, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit blocked his execution last month.

Barr’s decision over the summer to go forward with executions rattled criminal justice groups who pointed to a nationwide decline in support for the death penalty, but drew support from victims’ advocates who say it’s painful for families to wait years, even decades, for a sentence to be carried out.

In recent years, states including Texas and Missouri have switched from a three-drug cocktail to pentobarbital for lethal injections, largely because of mounting obstacles in obtaining the drugs from suppliers.

Two of the men who were scheduled for execution were from Texas and Missouri, but the two others were scheduled to be executed under state protocols that use the three-drug cocktail — including Honken.

Iowa does not have the state death penalty, meaning the federal government must choose a different state’s execution rules to follow under the act. In Honken’s case, federal officials chose the state where he’s being held — Indiana, where the Terre Haute federal penitentiary and execution chamber are located. Indiana uses the three-drug lethal injection cocktail, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The other death row inmates whose executions were put on hold are Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted in 1999 in Arkansas of robbing and murdering a family of three; Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted in 2003 in Missouri of raping, murdering, dismembering and burning a 16-year-old girl; and Alfred Bourgeois, convicted in 2004 in Texas of torturing and killing his 2-year-old daughter.

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.

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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 was convicted in 2004 and sentenced in 2005 to death.

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.

The Washington Post and Reuters contributed to this report.

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