U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutka wrote in a late Wednesday ruling that the public is not served by "short-circuiting" legitimate judicial process.
The Justice Department didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on Thursday on whether it would appeal, and the attorney general was travelling.
"This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress", said the convicts' attorney, Shawn Nolan. Some 60 inmates are on federal death row, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who killed three people and injured more than 260 in the 2013 attack.
"The FDPA provides no exceptions to this rule", Chutkan wrote, "and does not contemplate the establishment of a separate federal execution procedure". The four had been scheduled to be executed at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. However, President Donald Trump has typically spoken of the loss of life penalty and his perception that executions are an efficient deterrent and punishment for some crimes, together with large-scale shootings and the killing of police.
When Barr made his announcement, legal experts questioned whether any of the executions would take place and predicted that there would be legal challenges to the protocol, which had been under review for years.
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Barr stated in July that the revision of the Obama period had been accomplished, paving the best way for the resumption of executions. 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. The ruling follows a decision last July by Attorney General William Barr to resume executions of condemned federal inmates on December 9. They argued that it differs from state protocols and that legally federal executions must be carried out according to state law.
She rejected the Justice Department's argument that using a single drug in a state that uses three drugs was, in effect, close enough, writing that there was "no statute that gives the BOP or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions".
Chutkan, in a 15-page ruling issued Wednesday night, halted four scheduled executions to allow inmates to challenge a new policy governing how they would be put to death. Two of the nation's most aggressive death penalty states, Texas and Missouri, have already moved to a single-drug protocol because obtaining all three drugs for the procedure has become increasingly hard. Lee was convicted in the 1996 deaths of an Arkansas family as part of a plot to set up a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. Unable to obtain a supply, Texas and other states began experiment with new execution protocols.
Barr said the department would execute condemned inmates with pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, replacing the three-drug protocol the department used in carrying out its last execution in 2003.