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Opinion | The Death Penalty Can Ensure ‘Justice Is Being Done’

Given the long delay that had already occurred, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to lift the order so the execution could proceed. Mr. Lee’s lawyers opposed that request, insisting that overturning the order would result in their client’s imminent execution. After reviewing the matter, the court granted the government’s request, rebuked the District Court for creating an unjustified last-minute barrier, and directed that the execution could proceed.

In the final minutes before the execution was to occur, Mr. Lee’s lawyers claimed the execution could not proceed because Mr. Lee still had time to seek further review of an appellate court decision six weeks earlier lifting a prior stay of execution. The Justice Department decided to pause the execution for several hours while the appellate court considered and promptly rejected Mr. Lee’s request. That cautious step, taken to ensure undoubted compliance with court orders, is irreconcilable with the suggestion that the department “rushed” the execution or disregarded any law. Mr. Lee’s final hours awaiting his fate were a result of his own lawyers’ choice to assert a non-meritorious objection at the last moment.

Mr. Lee’s lawyers also disregarded the cost to victims’ families of continued delay. Although they note that some members of Mr. Lee’s victims’ families opposed his execution, others did not. Nor did the family members of Wesley Purkey’s victim, Jennifer Long, who were in Terre Haute on Wednesday afternoon. When the District Court again imposed another last-minute stoppage, granting more time for Mr. Purkey’s lawyers to argue (among other things) that he did not understand the reason for his execution, the Justice Department again sought Supreme Court review.

As the hours wore on, Justice Department officials asked Ms. Long’s father if he would prefer to wait for another day. The answer was unequivocal: He would stay as long as it took. As Ms. Long’s stepmother later said, “We just shouldn’t have had to wait this long.” The Supreme Court ultimately authorized the execution just before 3 a.m. In his final statement, Mr. Purkey apologized to “Jennifer’s family” for the pain he had caused, contradicting the claim of his lawyers that he did not understand the reason for his execution.

The third execution, of Dustin Honken, occurred on schedule, but still too late for some of his victims’ families. John Duncan — the father of the victim Lori Duncan and grandfather of her slain daughters, Kandace (age 10) and Amber (age 6) — had urged Mr. Honken’s execution for years. As John Duncan was dying of cancer in 2018, he asked family members to promise they would witness the execution on his behalf. On Friday, they did. “Finally,” they said in a statement, “justice is being done.”

Mr. Lee’s lawyers and other death penalty opponents are entitled to disagree with that sentiment. But if the United States is going to allow capital punishment, a white-supremacist triple murderer would seem the textbook example of a justified case. And if death sentences are going to be imposed, they cannot just be hypothetical; they eventually have to be carried out, or the punishment will lose its deterrent and retributive effects.

Rather than forthrightly opposing the death penalty and attempting to change the law through democratic means, however, Mr. Lee’s lawyers and others have chosen the legal and public-relations equivalent of guerrilla war. They sought to obstruct by any means the administration of sentences that Congress permitted, juries supported and the Supreme Court approved. And when those tactics failed, they accused the Justice Department of “a grave threat to the rule of law,” even though it operated entirely within the law enacted by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court. The American people can decide for themselves which aspects of that process should be considered “shameful.”

Jeffrey A. Rosen is the deputy attorney general.

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