U.S. judge stalls Trump administration’s bid to resume federal executions

By Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge has halted the scheduled executions of four inmates on federal death row, temporarily stalling an effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to resume federal executions next month after a 16-year hiatus.

Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over long-running legal challenges by condemned prisoners to the Department of Justice’s lethal injection protocol, issued the temporary order late on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Washington.

She said the condemned inmates suing the government were likely to succeed on at least one of their arguments, namely that the Federal Death Penalty Act requires the Bureau of Prisons to follow the execution procedures of the state in which an inmate was convicted.

“There is no statute that gives the BOP or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan wrote in her 15-page opinion, referring to the agencies by their initials.

She said it was likely that Attorney General William Barr had overreached his authority in July when he announced that the Justice Department planned to resume federal executions using a new one-drug protocol.

Barr said the department would execute condemned inmates with pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, replacing the three-drug protocol the department used in carrying out its last execution in 2003.

Barr also announced execution dates in December and January for five men on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, all of them convicted murderers.

The announcement revived legal challenges to the lethal injection protocol dating back to 2005 that had lain dormant in federal court. Some 60 inmates are on federal death row, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who killed three people and injured more than 260 in the 2013 attack.

One of the five men with execution dates, Lezmond Mitchell, won a stay in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month. The other four men are now protected by Chutkan’s order.

“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” Shawn Nolan, one of the attorneys for the men facing federal execution, said in a statement.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment, but had opposed any delay in the executions saying the new protocol was lawful and the condemned inmates’ victims have a “compelling interest in the timely enforcement of a lawful death sentence.”

Condemned inmates have also said the Justice Department will breach a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment by using pentobarbital. They cite physicians who say the corrosively alkaline chemical will likely cause them burning pain and force fluid into their lungs while they remain conscious, causing the sensation of drowning before they die.

The Justice Department says the lethal injections are humane and not excessively painful.

Most countries have abolished capital punishment.

In the United States, Trump, a death penalty supporter, has called for increasing its use for drug traffickers and mass shooters.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additonal reporting by Sarah Lynch in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. jurors’ identities in ‘El Chapo’ drug trial to remain secret

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Brooklyn has ruled that the identities of jurors expected to decide the fate of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a trial this year will be kept secret.

In a decision on Monday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said jurors’ names, addresses and places of employment will be shielded from Guzman, his lawyers, prosecutors and the press.

He also ordered that jurors be transported to and from the courthouse by federal marshals, and sequestered from the public while there.

Guzman’s lawyer had argued that an anonymous jury would undermine the presumption that his client was innocent, create an “extremely unfair” impression that he was dangerous, and impair his ability to question prospective jurors.

“Mr. Guzman is obviously disappointed by the decision,” the lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, said in an email on Tuesday. “All he is asking for is a fair trial in front of an impartial jury.”

U.S. prosecutors have accused Guzman, 60, of running a global cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and playing a central role in a decade-long Mexican drug war where more than 100,000 people have died.

Cogan said the U.S. government “presented strong and credible reasons to believe that the jury needs protection,” and the evidence might depict a “pattern of violence” by Guzman and his associates that might cause jurors to fear for their safety.

“That many of the allegations involve murder, assault, kidnapping, or torture of potential witnesses or those suspected of assisting law enforcement makes the government’s concerns particularly salient,” Cogan wrote.

The judge also said the significant media attention to the case could raise the potential for juror names to become public, exposing jurors to the risk of intimidation or harassment.

Balarezo had in court papers said keeping juror identities from the public and news media would be a “fair compromise.”

Guzman’s trial is scheduled to begin in September, according to court records, and could last a few months.

Mexican authorities captured Guzman and an associate in January 2016 by pulling over a Ford Focus they had stolen, after Guzman had fled through tunnels and drains from a raid on a safe house in northwest Mexico.

The arrest came six months after Guzman had escaped through a tunnel from a high-security Mexican prison. Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)