The Trump administration’s blitz of federal executions hit a setback on Thursday after a federal judge in Indiana ruled that more measures had to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Terre Haute federal prison facility before executions could continue. 

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The administration hopes to carry out three more executions at the facility, including that of of Lisa Montgomery, who will be the first woman put to death by the federal government in nearly seven decades if the judge’s injunction is lifted.

In her opinion issued yesterday Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana wrote that the federal government’s poor management of the previous 10 executions “has created a substantial risk” that plaintiffs in the case, who are two prisoners at the Terre Haute facility not on death row, and other inmates and staff may contract the virus.  

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For the Trump administration to be able to carry out the remaining executions, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons has to ensure that all staff participating in the executions wear masks, and they must create a contact log that tracks Terre Haute staff who come into close contact with others during the execution process. For 14 days after the execution, execution staff have to take daily rapid COVID-19 tests, and anyone who produces a positive test must go through contact tracing.  



a man wearing a hat talking on a cell phone: In advance of the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, anti-death penalty protestors demonstrate at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Springhill Road near the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on Monday, July 13, 2020.


© Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar
In advance of the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, anti-death penalty protestors demonstrate at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Springhill Road near the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on Monday, July 13, 2020.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs celebrated the ruling. 

“Every execution is a potential COVID-19 super-spreader event. They are exactly the type of event that the CDC and other health officials have said should NOT be happening now,” wrote attorney Bob Burgoyne in a comment provided to IndyStar. Burgoyne added that a large number of people travel to Terre Haute for each execution, which may raise the likelihood of contagion for the Terre Haute community and wherever it is that attendees return to. 

IndyStar has left a voicemail requesting comment from the Department of Justice attorney representing the federal government in the lawsuit.

Magnus-Stinson originally denied the plaintiffs’ requests to halt executions in December, claiming they had not presented enough evidence to show that they were at risk of getting COVID-19 because of the executions.

The Bureau of Prisons claimed to have been following preventative measures at Terre Haute but new evidence presented by plaintiffs and a spike in COVID-19 cases tied to the prison suggest otherwise, according to Magnus-Stinson.

“The defendants claim to have implemented mask-wearing but have failed to enforce compliance,” wrote Magnus-Stinson in her opinion issued Thursday. “The defendants have touted the availability of testing but have chosen not to utilize rapid testing of staff and visitors who enter prison grounds.

“Most disconcerting, the defendants represented to the Court that contact tracing would occur after any BOP staff member involved in the executions tested positive. This has not been the case—and the Court finds the failure was not by accident but by design,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

Between Dec. 8, when the judge denied the plaintiffs’ original request to stall the executions, and Thursday, 657 inmates and 70 staff members tested positive for the virus.

Federal executions will be halted for 60 days unless the required COVID-19 measures are enacted.

Call IndyStar courts reporter Johnny Magdaleno at 317-273-3188 or email him at jmagdaleno@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @IndyStarJohnny.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Terre Haute executions paused by judge until COVID-19 measures are instituted

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