Victims’ Family Members Ask for Clemency for Federal Death-Row Prisoner Daniel Lee

When Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 that the federal government planned to execute five prisoners in a five-week span from December 9, 2019 to January 15, 2020, he declared that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” In at least two of those cases, however, the victims’ families and community have said they don’t want the death penalty carried out.

In a six-minute video, Earlene Branch Peterson (pictured, holding a photo of her daughter, Nancy Mueller) has asked President Donald Trump to grant clemency for Daniel Lewis Lee, who is scheduled to die on December 9 for the murders of Peterson’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. She is joined in her plea by a surviving daughter, Kimma Gurel, and granddaughter, Monica Veillette, as well as the U.S. attorney who investigated and prosecuted the murders and the trial judge who presided over the case.

Lee and co-defendant Chevie Kehoe were convicted in 1999 of killing Nancy Mueller, her husband William Mueller, and her 8-year-old daughter Sarah Powell. Mueller’s family, the prosecutor, and the judge all believe that executing Lee, who is scheduled to be the first federal prisoner put to death in 16 years, would be a miscarriage of justice given the life sentence imposed on his much more culpable co-defendant. Judge G. Thomas Eisele described Kehoe as the “ringleader” and trial testimony showed that Kehoe killed Sarah Powell after Lee refused, saying he would not kill a child.

In asking President Trump to commute Lee’s death sentence to life without parole, Peterson says, “Yes, Daniel Lee damaged my life, but I can’t believe taking his life is going to change any of that. I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way. In fact, it’s kind of like it dirties her name, because she wouldn’t want it and I don’t want it. That’s not the way it should be. That’s not the God I serve.” Peterson, who voted for President Trump and said she would do so again in 2020, believes “[i]f I could talk personally to President Trump, I feel he could feel my heart and know that I don’t want this to happen, that Daniel Lee doesn’t need this any more than Chevie Kehoe does. I believe that he should give Daniel Lee clemency for what he did.”

“The government ain’t doing this for me,” she says, “because I would say no.”

On October 4, a federal appeals court granted a stay of execution to Lezmond Mitchell, the second of the five federal prisoners on the Department of Justice’s execution schedule. Before Mitchell’s trial, Navajo Nation officials wrote a letter to the federal prosecutor opposing the death penalty for Mitchell, who is Navajo, saying that the “the taking of human life for vengeance” is counter to Navajo culture and religion. Family members also opposed the prosecution seeking the death penalty in that case.

In 2014, both Judge Eisel and Dan Stripling, the lead prosecutor at the trial, wrote letters to then-Attorney General Eric Holder expressing their views that Lee’s death sentence was disproportionate and unfair. “I feel compelled to write this letter, which I would not normally do, because I believe that requiring Lee to pay the ultimate penalty – death ­– is unjust under the peculiar circumstances of this case,” Judge Eisele said. Stripling wrote to Holder, “I find very disturbing the randomness with which defendants are charged, convicted, and sentenced in capital cases. This case perfectly illustrates this unexplainable randomness.”

Eisel and Stripling noted that prosecutors had planned to withdraw the death penalty as an option for Lee if the jury returned a life verdict for Kehoe. “There was agreement that should Kehoe not receive a death sentence, none should be sought against Lee,” Stripling stated. When the jury recommended a life sentence for Kehoe, prosecutors asked the Department of Justice to decertify the decision to seek death for Lee. The request was denied. “At the time, and today, I think decertification would have been the correct decision,” Stripling said. Judge Eisele wrote, “the end result leaves me with the firm conviction that justice was not served in this particular case.”

Sources

Campbell Robertson, Before First Federal Execution in Years, Family of Victims Dissents, The New York Times, October 29, 2019; US v. Lee: Mrs. Earlene Peterson, Vimeo, September 122019.

Read the let­ters from Kimma Gurel and Monica Veillette to President Trump. Read the 2014 let­ters from Judge G. Thomas Eisele and for­mer Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Stripling to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and then‑U.S. Attorney Christopher Thyer.