Attorney General William Barr has ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for five federal inmates in the next six months, the first time in more than 16 years that the federal government will use capital punishment. The Department of Justice announced Barr’s order in a statement on Thursday.
“Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Barr said. “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The executions are set to take place in December and January. Daniel Lewis Lee is set to be put to death first, on December 9. Lee was convicted of murdering a family of three and plotting to overthrow the government in pursuit of founding a new, white supremacist nation, the Aryan Peoples’ Republic.
Execution dates were also set for Lezmond Mitchell, convicted of murdering 63-year-old grandmother and her nine-year-old grandaughter, Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old, Alfred Bourgeois, convicted of murdering his his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and Dustin Lee Honken, convicted of killing five people, including a mother and her two daughters.
The DOJ confirmed it would use a single drug — the potent sedative pentobarbital, prescribed to treat epilepsy and insomnia — rather than the three-drug cocktail previously used for federal and state executions. Manufacturers and suppliers of the three drugs, including pentobarbital, have protested their use for capital punishment in the past.
Support for the death penalty has dwindled in recent years. It stands at 56 in favor and 41 percent opposed as of 2018, according to Gallup. That’s down from an all-time high of 80 percent support, 19 percent opposition in 1995. The decline in support for capital punishment has come as the number of exonerations of death row inmates have increased in recent years. Since 1973, 166 former death-row inmates have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The last person executed by the federal government was Louis Jones Jr., a U.S. Army soldier put to death in 2003 after he was convicted of the rape and murder of another soldier. He was one of three individuals executed during George W. Bush’s presidency; before Bush no federal inmates had been put to death since 1963. (As governor of Texas, Bush presided over the executions of 154 prisoners, a record, at the time, for any governor in U.S. history. The record was broken by his predecessor, Rick Perry, now Secretary of Energy.)
Almost every Democratic presidential candidate opposes the death penalty. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has supported capital punishment in the past, has indicated that support might be softening, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has said he supports it in specific circumstances.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are a total of 62 people who are awaiting execution for federal crimes, Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof among them. Nine of those prisoners are from states that have abolished the death penalty.