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Federal Government Plans To Resume Death Penalty After 20-Year Hiatus


For the past 16 years, the government of the United States has not executed any inmate on federal death row. That is now about to change. U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice will resume capital punishment, and he has ordered the first federal executions since 2003. Five inmates who've been found guilty of murder are scheduled for execution beginning in December. NPR's Cheryl Corley is following the story and joins us now. And we should warn listeners we're going to talk through some gruesome crimes that many people will find disturbing.

Cheryl, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So when the attorney general said he was reinstating federal executions, he talked about it being part of a new protocol. Did he explain further?

CORLEY: Actually, he sort of did. But it really all boils down to the way executions are carried out because, for years, there's been this big controversy over a three-drug cocktail that was used for lethal injections. And some drug-makers also stopped providing sedatives to the federal government, saying they didn't want their drugs used for executions. And as you mentioned, the last federal execution was in 2003.

In 2014, there was also this botched state execution in Oklahoma. And Attorney General Barr says a review of capital punishment and lethal drug issues that were ordered by President Obama at that time is complete. And he approved a new procedure, replacing that three-drug cocktail with a single drug that's used in several states.

MARTIN: Support - overall support for the death penalty in this country has been steadily declining since the '90s, but still a majority of the country favors capital punishment. What's been the response to the attorney general's decision?

CORLEY: Well, there's been lots of opposition, with people condemning it, calling it a slap in the face to criminal justice reforms. Robert Dunham, the head of the Death Penalty Information Center, says the Federal Government will be bucking a trend of fewer executions across the country. He says the attorney general isn't paying attention to all the exonerations that have been going on. Here's what he had to say.

ROBERT DUNHAM: People are very concerned about not just the rate of error, but the fact that there is a clearly demonstrated risk that no matter what we do, innocent people may be convicted wrongly and sentenced to death.

CORLEY: And, you know, my colleague Martin Kaste also talked to families about the prospect of their loved ones' killers being executed. And here's his report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The first five men the administration has scheduled for execution all committed especially violent crimes. Sadistic isn't too strong a word. And all of them killed children. One of those victims was 16-year-old Jennifer Long, who was kidnapped, raped and killed 21 years ago. Her stepsister Holly Paige has been plagued ever since by thoughts of what happened.

HOLLY PAIGE: I can be asleep, and if there's something on the news about something like what happened to her, I'll wake up upset.

KASTE: The killer, Wesley Ira Purkey, has been sentenced to die, but execution has been on hold so long that Paige wasn't expecting it anymore until yesterday morning.

PAIGE: My mom texted me. My heart fell. It's like when you're in shock not because something's bad but something's good but you can't believe it.

KASTE: Marilyn Richards is Paige's mother and stepmother to Jennifer. When the execution happens, she says she'll mark the occasion with Jennifer's closest friends from back then.

MARILYN RICHARDS: We're going to get together and spend the night together, have a dinner and light candles and, you know, have our own celebration.

KASTE: Another convicted killer now scheduled to die is Lezmond Mitchell. In 2001, he was hitchhiking with a friend on Navajo land in Arizona, and he murdered a 65-year-old woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter.

MICHAEL SLIM: Yes, he killed my grandma. He stabbed her many times, and he killed the little girl.

KASTE: That's Michael Slim (ph) in Phoenix. As to whether his grandma's killer should be executed, he says his thinking has changed. At the time of the trial, Navajo officials had asked federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, but they were overruled. And Slim says he agreed with the feds back then. He welcomed the death sentence.

SLIM: Looking back at it, yes, I did believe in it when it first happened. You know, when it was a - trial was over, I felt happy. But that was the wrong kind of happy because God should make that decision, not me.

KASTE: Slim now has religious objections to capital punishment, but he says he understands it if other family members decide to welcome this news, especially someone like his aunt who lost both her mother and her daughter to such random brutal violence.

MARTIN: That was a report from NPR's Martin Kaste. Let's bring back in Cheryl Corley, who's been reporting on this development, this announcement from the attorney general.

Cheryl, so what are the odds that these executions actually go forward in December in light of all the response that you articulated earlier?

CORLEY: Well, difficult to see it happening. The ACLU and others have vowed to fight it in the courts. So the attorney general has vowed it will happen. So we'll just have to wait and see what happens in the courts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 26, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said that murder victim Jennifer Long was killed in Missouri. In fact, she was killed in Kansas.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.