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Filed 11:00 a.m.
07.24.2020

Witnesses to the Execution

An oral history of the first federal execution under Donald Trump, as told by victims’ relatives, prison staff, and others.

Earlene Peterson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed, in her home in Hector, Ark., in 2019. Andrea Morales

The federal government had executed just three men in the last half century — until July, when it executed three in a single week. President Trump has long extolled the death penalty, and last month, Attorney General William Barr set dates for four men. “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement.

This article was published in partnership with Slate.

The first man on Barr’s list was Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of helping to kill William Mueller, Nancy Mueller, and Nancy’s 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell, in 1996. According to prosecutors, the three were shot with a stun gun and then drowned during a robbery by members of a white supremacist group. Several of Nancy and Sarah’s relatives opposed Lee’s execution, but wanted to attend. Feeling they could not travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they unsuccessfully sued to stop it. In the end, they did not witness Lee’s death, but William Mueller’s son, Scott Mueller, did attend.

Lee’s death was scheduled for 4 p.m., on Monday, July 13, but legal fights over the government’s lethal injection plan continued into the night, and his time of death was 8:07 a.m., on Tuesday. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, Lee spent four hours strapped to the gurney.

We tracked down a broad array of those connected to the event, to present a three-dimensional account of the first federal execution in 17 years.

A photograph of Nancy Mueller hangs at the home of her mother, Earlene Peterson. Daniel Lewis Lee was executed for murdering Mueller, her husband and her daughter.

Monica Veillette, niece and cousin of murder victims Nancy Mueller and Sarah Powell: When they announced the new execution date, we thought it was likely a mistake, that someone had not considered how many people would need to travel during a pandemic. Someone called from the Bureau of Prisons to set up our plane tickets and hotels; they handle everything from the minute you arrive.

I kept asking him about COVID precautions and he said he’d get answers. He said that he and his wife were scared even to go buy pet food. I said, “Imagine flying across the country and going into a prison.” He apologized profusely for pushing us to make arrangements. He has a boss to answer to. I felt so sorry for him. And for everyone at the prison.

Earlene Peterson, mother and grandmother of Mueller and Powell: I have a heart condition and a lung condition. I haven’t been anywhere since the tenth of March, not to church, not to Wal-Mart. I went to my doctor and she had a fit, she said, “You are not to go.”

Monica Veillette: We have a very large family and I’m sure some people supported the execution. I don’t want to say how anyone else feels is wrong because grief is a horrible thing to live with.

Scott Mueller, the son of victim William Mueller: To be honest with you, I’d rather not talk about it. I want to just keep my stuff to myself, if you don’t mind. I feel justice was served. As far as Earlene’s family, they’ve dominated the whole thing for 25 years, and I wasn’t heard of until execution time. I love them, they love me, and we just have a difference of opinion I guess. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.

Lee was tried alongside a man named Chevie Kehoe, whom the trial judge described as the “ringleader” of the murders and the one directly responsible for the eight-year-old’s death. Kehoe received a life sentence. Lee’s lawyers have argued that Lee played a limited role in the crime and was unfairly sentenced using a psychological test that portrayed him as a psychopath.

Earlene Peterson: At the trial, Lee looked more guilty, with a neck tattoo and a missing eye, while Chevie Kehoe had a suit and tie. But you could tell Daniel was the follower, and Chevie was the leader.

Monica Veillette: We never hear about Chevie Kehoe, unless he’s moved from one prison to another. We have closure. But with Daniel Lee it’s been a continuous compounding of our grief, to bear the burden that another human being is going to be killed in your name. We were bombarded with messages of support. People said, “I bet you all are so happy.” Dealing with all those well-meaning friends and loved ones was so hard. We sued to get the execution postponed because of the pandemic, and the government called our family’s fears “frivolous.” It made me cry more than anything thus far, to be called frivolous by the people who had said they were doing this for us. It felt so cruel.

Scott Taylor, spokesperson, Bureau of Prisons (in an emailed statement): We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in. It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.

Monica Veillette: The BOP staffer I spoke to had no answers, and said they wouldn’t give us anything in writing about COVID precautions, because they said it could be “discoverable” in court.

As it became clear they weren’t going to stop the execution, we had to make an agonizing decision. We wanted to be present to say, “This is not being done in Sarah and Nancy’s name,” and to let that be the final moment in their story. But what if I went and I was asymptomatic and hugged my grandma, because who would not be able to hug their grandma in that situation, and then my grandma gets sick?

I was still thinking about going as late as Saturday night. When my flight left on Sunday, I knew there was no turning back, and I cried.

Earlene Peterson: My son was going to drive me from Arkansas. My family was having a cow, my church, my friends: “No, no, no, you can’t do it.” So in the end I chose safety.

Ruth Friedman, attorney for Daniel Lee: His lawyers were not in Terre Haute. I’m at a worrisome age with a worrisome underlying condition. On the one hand, it felt terrible. On the other, it was good that we could be at our desks to litigate. There were so many problems with this case, and we were getting information from the government in dribs and drabs, and then we were trying to get the courts to pay attention. I couldn’t imagine what hours I’d spend on a plane, much less driving from Washington, D.C., to Indiana.

Tim Evans, reporter, The Indianapolis Star: As a journalist, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but as a person I was nervous. Part of me thought I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t happen.

Terre Haute prisoner who declined to be named and is not on death row: We tend to start preparing about two weeks out. One of the guys I’m friends with had to power-wash the death house, the entire outside of it. Other guys had to weed the area around it. The bigwigs were coming and they wanted it all to look pristine. It’s like a show for them.

On Monday morning around 10:30 a.m., an administrator called a meeting about what he called “the festivities.” He told us to get our trays from the cafeteria, eat as fast as you can, get everything you want to take to read, your radio, blankets, and then we had to go to the old Unicor building or the chapel to be locked down. They were trying to block us from seeing the transport of the prisoner to the execution chamber but a lot of us saw it anyway. They made us dress in our greens, like it was fancy.

On Monday morning, federal judge Tanya Chutkan ordered that the government could not carry out the executions while federal death row prisoners continued to contest the lethal injection protocol. The Department of Justice immediately appealed above Chutkan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit., but it was already apparent that the Supreme Court would have the final say.

Abraham Bonowitz, co-founder of Death Penalty Action, speaks during a news conference outside the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute.

Abraham Bonowitz, anti-death-penalty activist, Death Penalty Action: The state police put up the sawhorse barrier things on the roads around the prison. They had official protest sites — one for pro-death penalty protesters and one for anti-death penalty protesters. But you couldn’t bring your phones there so we set up at the busiest intersection on US 41, and negotiated a place for our people to park at the nearby funeral home. For a while it was just waiting. By 9 p.m., everyone was just sitting with their phones, refreshing and refreshing the Supreme Court docket page.

Tim Evans, reporter: We went through security checks and they took our phones and we sat down and waited. Around 6 p.m. or so they told us it was going to be awhile, and we left for dinner, came back. Between 9 and 10 they told us it was going to be awhile again and they recommended that the local reporters go home and everyone else get a hotel.

A
self-portrait of Tim Evans, investigative reporter for The Indianapolis Star.
Reporters
waiting for the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee.

Terre Haute prisoner: Nobody was trying to look outside—it was dark. Everybody was starting to get real pissed off, there was no reason we couldn’t go back to our units. No email, phones. Everyone felt that with COVID we didn’t need anymore to deal with.

Monica Veillette, family member of victims: I spent Monday night in the part of my living room with the best reception, with my phone plugged in, the ringer turned up high, afraid to walk away or eat or shower or go to the bathroom, scouring the news sites, the Supreme Court website, reading the briefings. I lit a candle.

A little before 11:30 p.m., EST, the D.C. appeals court kept the stay in place and set a schedule to hear further arguments on the lethal injection protocol. It appeared the execution would not go ahead.

Ruth Friedman, defense attorney: We knew it wasn’t really over. But when the appeals court upholds unanimously shortly before midnight, that would seem to have meaning.

Tim Evans, reporter: When they told us to leave, one reporter slept in her car. I checked into a hotel, but I was pretty wound up and I tweeted and watched cooking shows. I texted my wife: “Do you really think RBG and the other Supremes are up?” Around 2 a.m. I decided to get under the covers.

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Shortly after 2 a.m.., the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn Judge Chutkan's stay, declaring that her “last-minute intervention...should be the extreme exception, not the norm.” Lee’s lawyers continued to argue that Lee’s execution could not be carried out because a stay remained in place (and legal experts have since questioned whether it was lawful for the prison to proceed). The federal Department of Justice argued that the execution could proceed, and filed a motion to formally lift the stay.

Ruth Friedman, defense attorney: For four hours, we were trying to get information and also tell the prison there was a stay in place. We’re calling the prison. We did speak to Lee at one point. He was by himself in his cell, he’d given his belongings away so he had no books or anything. We called later and they said we couldn’t talk to him, and I think it’s because it was starting.

Tim Evans, reporter: At 2:18 I got the text: “Please make your way back to the Media Center we will be resuming the execution at approximately 4 a.m.” I slammed a Diet Coke and drove over. It was really dark and there was a lot of dew on the ground, and a lot of big spotlights on the building where we were headed. There were armed guards with bulletproof vests. Inside, there were several viewing rooms, each with its own door and a small bathroom. It was dead silent, which was eerie for a bunch of journalists. We waited in the room for so long I started counting the concrete blocks in the wall. There were two windows covered with a curtain. Everyone was afraid to get up to go to the bathroom because at any moment the curtain could go up.

Earlene Peterson, family member of victims: I was praying all night in my war room, where I have my Bible and computer.

Terre Haute prisoner: We just wanted to go to bed. We got sack lunches, cold breakfasts. The officers were getting really aggravated because it just dragged on and on, but eventually a secretary brought a small television, so we could watch the news and some movies: Remember the Titans, Bruce Almighty. People tried their best to stay awake, because we didn’t have beds and there were cockroaches all over the floor.

Scott Taylor, spokesman, Bureau of Prisons: Mr. Lee was restrained for approximately 4 hours, during which he had access to his spiritual advisor and was able to have moments of prayer.

Ruth Friedman, defense attorney: I didn’t know they had started the execution until the media reported he was dead.

Tim Evans, reporter: After a while, from inside the witnessing room, you could hear the birds making the sounds they make just before the sun comes up. I drew little pictures of the room. Finally we heard a knock on the door and found out there was another last-minute appeal. We learned it was around 6:40, meaning we’d been in there more than two hours. Around 7:45, the curtain started to go up.

A drawing of the media viewing room, by Tim Evans, investigative reporter for the Indianapolis Star.

Lee was laying with his feet toward our windows, on what looks like an exam table, and there were little arm wings that folded out and his arms were strapped there, with four or five straps on each arm, and he had an IV in the crook of his left elbow and the back of his right hand.

He kind of raised up and gave us a what-for look. My perception of the look was: who are you and why are you here to watch me die? That’s probably me projecting. It was a hard stare.

It’s kinda bizarre when I think back on it, but everybody got up to look like it was a zoo and all of us started scribbling notes.

Adam Pinsker, reporter, WTIU: There were several men with him, only one wearing protective gear. They were wearing nice suits, and one of them asked Lee if he wanted to make a last statement.

The Bureau of Prisons would not provide text of Lee’s final statement, though pieces of it appeared in media coverage.

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Daniel Lewis Lee, according to reporter Adam Pinsker’s notes: I’m not perfect, but I’m not a murderer. I was halfway across the country when this happened. I think you know what my first and last meals were. You’re killing an innocent man.

Although much of the evidence around Lee’s precise role was circumstantial, the trial judge cited later testimony that Kehoe said Lee participated in the deaths of the adult victims but not the 8-year-old.

Tim Evans, reporter: And then he leaned his head back down onto the gurney. The marshal picked up a phone, didn’t dial. The drugs started, and he didn’t seem to be suffering. At one point he pulled his head up a little. His hand twitched. A couple times his lips fluttered. After the last time I saw his chest rise, he laid still for several minutes. I stepped back and said a little prayer to watch over his soul and to give me courage and clarity; I needed to take my eyes off of it for a minute and this was a good excuse to do that.

Pinsker: I think he breathed like five times. The men with him didn’t move. One of them looked straight ahead. I kept focusing on his right hand, because it was closest to me. It lost color, it was pale in the last minutes of the execution, as white as a sheet of paper. It did seem like a long twenty minutes.

Notes made by Tim Evans, investigative reporter for The Indianapolis Star.

Evans: A guy from the prison pronounced him dead and the curtain started dropping again. I left, got my phone, and dictated a few sentences to my editor to add to the story. Lee didn’t apologize at all and I wonder if that made it easier for me to detach. If he’d been apologetic, would that have still been the case? Also, it was like this weird theme park thing. You had to wait to get in. You had this “deplorable villain” and justice was served. After all this waiting, the ride was over real quick and then they shuffled you out and brought the next group in the next day. I’ve slept pretty well the last couple nights, but last night I was wandering around the house and, wondering, if I looked out that window, would I see him looking back at me like he did?

Statement by Attorney General William P. Barr: Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.

Evans: As we were leaving, we asked how long had Lee been in there. Because we had been in there for four hours. And they said he’d been brought in before us and he’d been strapped to the table that whole time. He’d been in that room that long. Which … that seems pretty rough.

Ruth Friedman, defense attorney: We were shocked that he was executed. Our team was very tired, very angry, and sad. This was a person to us. He was portrayed as a psychopath, but we know he is not. We knew his kindness, his humor, his pain. We were not able to present in court his history, his traumas as a child, and there are things we now want to honor about his privacy, even though he’s gone. But it’s like any loss; at first it’s hard to believe the person is gone.

Earlene Peterson, family member of victims: I sobbed. I’m a mother, I lost my grandbaby and my daughter, so I know how his mother felt.

Scott Mueller, family member who witnessed the execution: It didn’t give me any more closure than I had. I’ll have closure when I see my dad in heaven.

Bureau of Prisons staff member who declined to be identified: I can’t really tell you anything. It’s one of those things that’s engrained. But the way that everything transpired with it taking so long, is 100 percent because of the attorneys filing the things that they were filing at the last minute. This is a process, a system, and because of politics it got bogged down for 17 years, but until those sentences get changed to something else, this is what’s supposed to happen. That’s as apolitical an opinion as you can get.

Priscilla Hutton, spiritual minister to a man on death row: The death row officers don't change very much, so they get to know these people, and when I talk to them, they are very uncomfortable with carrying these executions out.

Terre Haute prisoner: The staff was pissed too. Afterwards, the administrator apologized to everyone for the fiasco. We didn’t get back to our halls till after 8 a.m. We’d had no sleep or shower. It was absolutely a mess. Some of the prisoners were for the executions, some against. I’m on the fence honestly. He killed a child, and I have children. But at the same time I do believe in God and it’s not my place to judge him. But most of us didn’t care and just wanted the executions to be over; it was like we were being punished.

Earlene Peterson, family member of victims: They say they’re doing it for us but they’re liars, lying through their teeth. They treated us as if we didn’t exist. I’m disappointed the president didn’t contact me, since I am a loyal voter for him. I feel that Trump has done a good job, and I’m hoping and praying he didn’t use this politically. I don’t want to believe that. I really feel in my heart the government let me down.