Public Safety

Iowa killer Dustin Lee Honken faces execution

Justices won't block federal death penalty for four inmates

Dustin Lee Honken is led Aug. 18, 2004, by federal marshals to a waiting car after the second day of jury selection in f
Dustin Lee Honken is led Aug. 18, 2004, by federal marshals to a waiting car after the second day of jury selection in federal court in Sioux City. Honken, the 35, was later convicted in the murders of three adults and two children in 1993. Prosecutors say the former methamphetamine dealer engineered the killings to silence two informers. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal, Tim Hynds)
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Twenty-seven years after he bound and executed five people — including two children — in one of Iowa’s most horrific murders, Dustin Lee Honken is scheduled to be put to death July 17 by lethal injection.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to block the executions of Honken and three other convicted child killers.

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.

Federal law does allow the death penalty, but it has seldom been used. These executions will mark the first use of it since 2003.

In an opinion released Monday, justices rejected an appeal from the four inmates to block the executions. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The court’s action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions. The Justice Department had earlier scheduled Honken’s for July 17.

The inmates, however, are separately asking a federal judge in Washington to impose a new delay on their executions over other legal issues that are not resolved.

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The activity at the court came after U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions.

He announced last year the federal government would resume executions using a single lethal drug, pentobarbital, and ending an informal moratorium.

“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 this month. “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.”

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.

They took the five 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.

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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Johnson was convicted of aiding and abetting murder, but federal authorities did not pursue the death penalty.

The federal government’s initial effort to execute the four convicted child killers was put on hold by a trial judge after the inmates challenged lethal injection procedures. 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, sending the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where the executions would take place — and where Honken is being held — has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars. One inmate died from it.

The other three inmates scheduled for execution 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 by her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.

The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date.

Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, decried the federal death penalty as “arbitrary, racially-biased and rife with poor lawyering and junk science.”

“Despite these problems, and even as people across the country are demanding that leaders rethink crime, punishment and justice, the government is barreling ahead with its plans to carry out the first federal executions in 17 years,” she said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed.

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