When Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 that the federal government planned to resume federal executions by putting to death Daniel Lewis Lee, the Department of Justice press release announcing the death warrants trumpeted that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” But the family of Nancy Mueller (pictured) and her eight-year-old daughter Sarah Powell — murder victims in Lee’s case — had long opposed his execution. The Department of Justice did not consult them in announcing the execution, ignored their pleas for clemency, and derided as “frivolous” their request that the execution be delayed until after the COVID-19 pandemic, so they could attend without risking their lives. The way the government behaved throughout the course of killing Daniel Lee in their names, they say, has retraumatized them and prevented them from attaining peace.

Lee was executed on the morning of July 14, 2020, strapped to a gurney for more than four hours while federal prosecutors worked to lift a series of stays of execution and injunctions issued by federal courts in Washington, D.C., Southern Indiana, and Chicago. “We have spoken out that this is not something we wanted,” said Monica Veillette, a cousin and niece of the victims. “Over and over it’s been said that it’s being done for my aunt and cousin, it’s being done for our family. And in the end, they completely dismissed us.”

Although the family opposed Lee’s execution, they believed attending the execution would be an important move towards healing. But once they raised health questions about the pandemic, the federal officials stopped communicating with them. With their lawsuit pending seeking to put off the execution until after the pandemic, the government told them they had no legal right to witness the execution and gave them no phone call, notice, or explanation alerting them that the execution would go forward. “William Barr stole that piece of our healing from us by pushing this [execution] forward during a pandemic when we couldn’t safely attend,” Veillette said.

In an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette only hours after Lee’s execution, Veillette asked, “Who does something like this in the middle of the night [and] feel[s] good about it?”

In October 2019, Earlene Branch Peterson asked President Donald Trump to grant clemency for Lee, who was sentenced to death for the murders of Peterson’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. She said, “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, her daughter Kimma Gurel, and Veillette, who had been designated as witnesses to the execution, asked the Department of Justice to temporarily postpone Lee’s execution until after the pandemic, citing Mrs. Peterson’s age (81) and health conditions that placed Gurel and Veillette at heightened risk from COVID-19. When prison officials brushed aside their request, the three filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Southern District of Indiana seeking to enjoin the execution from taking place. They argued that the Department of Justice had violated federal law by “scheduling Mr. Lee’s execution during the COVID-19 pandemic without adequate measures in place to protect them.” The District Court granted their motion on July 10 and issued a preliminary injunction halting the execution.

Federal prosecutors then moved to vacate the injunction, arguing that the same victims on behalf of whom it claimed to be carrying out the execution had “no interest in the matter,” characterizing their safety concerns as travel “preferences,” and calling their motion “frivolous.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the injunction, and after federal prosecutors repeated their demeaning comments in pleadings in the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court in a 2:00 a.m. decision declined to halt the execution.

“What does it say about them that they disregard our rights and voices and valid health and safety concerns while calling them ‘frivolous’?” Veillette asked. “My 81-year-old gramma had her daughter and granddaughter murdered, but even in her never-ending sorrow, made the choice to fight for justice because it’s the right thing to do according to her own morals and faith. … [That] says something about her immense courage and sense of belief that our justice system should serve and protect all people fairly and equally, including Daniel Lee and including her.”

In a radio interview on Indiana Public Media the week after the execution, Veillette said the government’s conduct had denied her peace. But, she said, “I want justice in our justice system more than I want peace for one individual. We lost our family members, you know, they were murdered. We are still grieving that loss.”

“This is a heavy burden to live with,” said Veillette.


Bente Bouthier, Family Of Daniel Lee’s Victims Say His Execution Has Further Traumatized Them, Indiana Public Media, July 24, 2020; Tony Holt, Family says actions on Lee exe­cu­tion add to grief, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 19, 2020; Tony Holt, Sentencing baf­fles lawyers, vic­tims’ kin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 15, 2020; Andrew DeMillo, Victims’ rel­a­tives most vocal oppo­nents of man’s exe­cu­tion, Associated Press, July 13, 2020; Campbell Robertson, She Doesn’t Want Her Daughter’s Killer To Be Put To Death. Should the Government Listen?, New York Times, October 292019.