A US judge ordered a delay on Monday of the first federal execution in the United States in 17 years, which is scheduled to be carried out later in the day.
Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, a former white supremacist convicted of murdering a family of three in 1996, is scheduled to be executed at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Monday at Terre Haute prison in the midwestern state of Indiana.
But US District Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered Lee's execution halted to allow for legal challenges to the lethal injection protocols to be used to put him and other federal inmates to death.
"The public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process," Chutkan said.
The Justice Department immediately appealed Chutkan's order to a higher court and the Supreme Court may have the final say in the case over the next few hours.
Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, would be the first federal inmate to be executed in the United States since 2003. There have been just three federal executions in the country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988.
Lee was convicted in Arkansas in 1999 of murdering William Mueller, a gun dealer, his wife, Nancy, and her eight-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell.
Earlene Peterson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed by Lee, has asked President Donald Trump to grant clemency to the condemned man but he has ignored her appeal.
Peterson and relatives of other victims also filed a lawsuit with a US District Court in Indianapolis seeking to delay the execution because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They argued that they would be risking their lives if they travelled to Terre Haute to witness Lee's execution.
An appeals court dismissed the suit on Sunday, clearing the way for the execution to go ahead.
Baker Kurrus, the lawyer for the families, said he would take their appeal to the Supreme Court.
"The federal government has put this family in the untenable position of choosing between their right to witness Danny Lee's execution and their own health and safety," Kurrus said.
The Bureau of Prisons said Sunday that a member of the Terre Haute prison staff had tested positive for COVID-19.
"There's no reason for anybody to be carrying out executions right now because of the pandemic," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Dunham accused Trump of "political use of the death penalty."
Trump, who faces a tough re-election battle in November, has called for stepped up use of capital punishment, especially for killers of police officers and drug traffickers.
More than 1,000 US religious leaders urged Trump last week to abandon plans to resume federal executions.
Only a handful of US states, mainly in the conservative South, still actively carry out executions. In 2019, 22 people were put to death.
Most crimes are tried under state laws, but federal courts can judge some of the most serious crimes -- terror attacks, hate crimes and the like -- as well as those committed on military bases and Indian reservations.
Among the most notable recent federal executions was that of Timothy McVeigh, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2001 for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma that killed 168 people.
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