The federal government’s July 14, 2020 execution of Daniel Lewis Lee in the federal penal facility at Terre Haute, Indiana—the first and only execution during the pandemic crisis sweeping the nation—was not only a shameful affront to the decency of this country but also reflected the callous disregard Attorney General William Barr has for criminal justice.


Last year the attorney general initiated an effort to resume federal executions after nearly a two decade hiatus—an effort he said was undertaken to bring “justice” to the victims of the crimes committed by the five death row inmates he selected for execution. The attorney general’s effort, we suspect, has more to do with President Trump’s “law and order” reelection strategy than any desire to see the interests of “justice” served.


Attorney General Resumes Federal Executions After 17 Years


The rush to deaths efforts last year was stalled by a federal district court judge before the U.S. Supreme Court on June 29, 2020 cleared the way for the resumption of federal executions. Lee became the first of four men scheduled to die over the next month.


The first and foremost problem with the Lee execution is the victims of the crime did not want the man executed. They did not share Barr’s sense of “justice” through execution. The 8l-year-old mother and grandmother of two of the victims in Lee’s case told the Attorney General, the president and general public that:


“As a supporter of President Trump, I pray that he will hear my message. The scheduled execution of Danny Lee for the murder of my daughter and granddaughter is not what I want and would bring my family more pain. We don’t want Danny Lee to be executed.”


That was the “justice” Earlene Peterson prayed the president would give her—prayers unanswered by the president and trampled upon by the attorney general.


The second problem with the Lee execution is that he may have been actually innocent of killing Earlene Peterson’s daughter and granddaughter. His final words to his executioners, the president and attorney general were, “You’re killing an innocent man.” Lee, an avowed white supremacist, had claimed throughout the post-conviction process that he and a co-defendant were in another part of the country at the time the charged murders occurred and that DNA evidence would prove it. The court system refused to allow the testing of the DNA evidence that may have proven Lee’s consistent pleas of innocence.


DNA Testing Remains Undone


Perhaps now that he has been executed the court system might find a way to allow the DNA to be tested to determine if an innocent man was actually put to death because Attorney General Barr wanted to serve the interests of the president’s reelection campaign.


Finally, Lee’s execution was grossly unfair because ten states abolished the death penalty during the 17-year moratorium on federal executions. Other reasons why the Lee execution was unfair were spelled out in the 2019 report on the death penalty by the Death Penalty Information Center. The report concluded:


  • New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty.
  • California imposed a moratorium on all executions.
  • A Gallup Poll showed that 60 percent of Americans prefer life without parole over the death penalty.
  • For the fifth year in a row, 2015-2019, fewer than 30 people were executed each year and fewer than 50 people were sentenced to death.
  • 32 states have no death penalty or have not carried out an execution in more than a decade.


Just as he did not care about the prayers of Earlene Peterson, Attorney General Barr does not care about what the majority of the American people think about the death penalty. The only thing that matters to the attorney general is how many inmates he can have executed before the November presidential election.


Administration Out of Touch with Public


Besides this callous political agenda, Attorney General Barr and public officials of his ilk are out of step with the American people on the issue of the death penalty. Only a decreasing minority of people support the death penalty that is disproportionately unfair to people of color, is given to people with the lowest financial resources, and is dispensed by juries more often than not because of prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance by defense counsel.


The death penalty is the epitomic of unfairness. It is a relic from the barbarity of this nation’s earliest notions about crime and punishment. It belongs in the quenched fires that once burned suspected witnesses at the stake.


Daniel Lewis Lee is dead. The country is no safer for it. The victims of his alleged crime are saddened by it. If this is “justice” as the Attorney General says, then a mule will win the next Kentucky Derby.