WASHINGTON — A federal judge late Wednesday halted all four scheduled federal executions, finding that Attorney General William Barr’s July proposal that sought to resume the death penalty after a 16-year moratorium appears to be at odds with federal law.

The four men, including an Iowa death row inmate, were scheduled to be executed in December and January 2020. But U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan of the District of Columbia ruled Wednesday that the inmates were likely to succeed in their argument that Barr’s proposal to execute all four 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 this summer to resume the federal death penalty under a new lethal injection protocol, saying the Justice Department “(owes) 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 that it couldn’t execute prisoners because it did not have access to the drugs necessary for lethal injection.

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.

The problem with this policy, Chutkan wrote, is that it 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.

In recent years, states such as Texas and Missouri have also 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 still use the three-drug cocktail.

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The Justice Department argued in legal briefs that it would be “absurd” to require the federal government to keep every drug used by death-penalty states in stock to comply with the FDPA. Using lethal injection as the method of execution in general, despite using different drugs, is still in the spirit of the law, the Justice Department argued.

But Chutkan disagreed. She said she found that interpretation of the law “implausible,” based on the basic dictionary definitions of words within the FDPA statute. She emphasized that carrying out executions in the same “manner” as the states in which the prisoner is convicted is a higher standard than adopting the same general method.

Besides, she said, the federal government has been following some version of this legal requirement since 1937. For years, federal authorities did not even have their own execution chamber. If a state required use of the electric chair for its convicts, for example, the federal government could borrow one, like the U.S. Marshals did when they oversaw the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on spying charges at New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1953.

The federal government is still allowed to ask for assistance from state officials in carrying out executions, Chutkan noted.

The Justice Department argued that delaying the executions by granting the inmates’ injunction would cause the government harm. Chutkan countered that the Justice Department’s argument was undercut by the fact that the federal government waited eight years to amend its execution protocol, since the Obama administration announced in 2011 that it would have to undergo review.

The death row inmates awaiting execution 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 violently raping, murdering, dismembering and burning a 16-year-old girl; Alfred Bourgeois, convicted in 2004 in Texas of torturing and killing his 2-year-old daughter; and Dustin Honken, a former methamphetamine kingpin convicted in 2004 in Iowa of shooting and killing five people: two informants, the girlfriend of an informant and her two daughters.

Iowa does not have the death penalty, meaning the federal government must choose a different state’s execution rules to follow under the FDPA. In Honken’s case, the feds chose 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.

This report includes material from World-Herald archives.

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