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In Restarting the Federal Death Penalty, AG William Barr Looks to Texas

View of the execution chamber in a Florida prison.
View of the execution chamber in a Florida prison. (Photo: Florida Department of Corrections/Doug Smith)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the execution of five federal prisoners who now have execution dates set for December and January.

(By Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune) In reviving the rarely used federal death penalty, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday it would use the same lethal drug Texas uses in its executions.

Ordering five executions in December and January, U.S. Attorney General William Barr told the federal prisons bureau to adopt an execution method “which closely mirrors” the protocol used in Texas, Georgia and Missouri. A federal death sentence has not been carried out since 2003, when an unofficial moratorium began as questions arose over the constitutionality of lethal injection. There have only been three federal executions in the modern era.

The new protocol replaces the controversial three-drug lethal injection combinationwith the method that Texas has had since 2012 — using only pentobarbital, a sedative. Texas purchases the drug from compounding pharmacies kept secret from the public, where drugs are mixed without federal regulation. The state has used pentobarbital in 79 executions.

Lethal drugs have become hard for states to obtain in the last decade. In 2011, drug manufacturers began blocking their products from being used in lethal injections, making states across the country, including Texas, scramble to find new execution drugs. In recent years, states have either stopped executions because they can’t obtain lethal doses or tried untested, controversial mixtures — sometimes resulting in gruesome deaths.

Compounding pharmacies, whose identities have been shielded from the public recently under Texas law, have allowed the state to continue carrying out by far the most executions in the country. Thirteen men were put to death in Texas last year; the state with the second most executions, Tennessee, had three, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

After purchasing several new batches of pentobarbital in recent years — as well as pushing back expiration dates of doses in stock — the Texas prison system has 27 lethal doses, more than enough to cover the 10 executions on the schedule this year, according to records obtained by The Texas Tribune. Its supply puts Texas in contrast with most other states, which still struggle to obtain the drugs.

Barr’s announcement did not indicate how the federal government would obtain lethal drugs or from where, but it said the new protocol is “clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse, and bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.”

Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, only three men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: Timothy McVeigh in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing, Juan Raul Garza about a week later for the Texas murders of three drug traffickers and Louis Jones in 2003 for the Texas murder of a female soldier.

On Thursday, Barr ordered executions in five cases in which children and elderly people were killed — including a Texas case. Alfred Bourgeois was federally sentenced to death in 2004, after being convicted in the torture, sexual molestation and death of his 2-year-old daughter at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. His execution is scheduled for Jan. 13.

The four other men set for execution are Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey and Dustin Lee Honken. They all were found guilty in the killings of minors, with all but Bourgeois convicted in multiple deaths.

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