Federal Executions in the Time of COVID-19

Resuming federal executions for the first time in 17 years isn't just cruel, it's reckless and dangerous

In July 2020, federal executions were resumed for the first time in 17 years in the middle of a deadly pandemic. From the start, the ACLU has been vocal about the risk that these federal executions would pose to everyone involved. Executions require the congregation of hundreds of people — prison staff, reporters, spiritual advisors, family members, and witnesses. Many of these people travel from around the country to Terre Haute, Indiana. They stay at local hotels, eat at local restaurants, spend time in the prison, and then return home. 

On July 2, 2020, the ACLU filed Hartkemeyer v. Barr on behalf of Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, a spiritual advisor who had ministered to Wesley Purkey, executed by the federal government on July 14, 2020, for more than a decade. Reverend Hartkemeyer was forced to choose between his health and performing his spiritual duties to Mr. Purkey in his final moments. The ACLU’s suit — which was denied by the courts — focused on Reverend Hartkemeyer’s protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Five months later, we have seen the predictions made in that case come to life. Yusuf Ahmed Nur acted as the spiritual advisor to Orlando Hall, who was executed on Nov. 19. A few days later, Mr. Nur tested positive for COVID-19. In response to a new lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners at the Terre Haute prison, the BOP has now disclosed that eight members of the execution team from Mr. Hall’s case tested positive for COVID-19 after the execution. It also admitted that two of the executioners in the execution chamber with Mr. Nur removed their masks while in the execution chamber with Mr. Nur and Mr. Hall.   

Documents we received from discovery in Hartkemeyer v. Barr, and by suing the government after a FOIA request went unanswered, have shown how completely negligent the government has been in its approach to contact tracing, testing, and other important measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. The result has been major spikes of infection in Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, as well as in Vigo County, where the prison is located.

As of December 14, 2020, the federal government still plans to execute at least three more people before Inauguration Day. That’s despite an executive order to curtail movement in the state of Indiana, and the fact that an outgoing president has not executed anyone since 1889. The rush to execute people during a pandemic is reckless, dangerous, and depraved. It must not happen. 

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