A federal judge from the District Court for the District of Columbia has issued a ruling halting the execution of four death row prisoners. JudgeTanya Chutkan, an Obama appointee, granted an appeal made by the inmates based on her interpretation of a technicality in the Federal Death Penalty Act. Federal executions had been on hold for quite some time but were scheduled to resume this December. (Politico)

A judge has blocked the scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates, effectively freezing the Trump administration’s effort to resume imposing the death penalty in a federal system that saw its last execution more than a decade and a half ago.

The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month.

The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

This strange appeal appears to have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the convicts. It’s a strictly procedural move made in response to a decision by the Justice Department to conduct the executions using a single drug, pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug combination used in many states.

That’s where the technicality comes in. The provision of the Federal Death Penalty Act in question states that the method of execution used in a federal case must be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.” In all of the pending cases, the state method is lethal injection, just as is being proposed for the executions scheduled to be carried out. But since the states use multiple drugs, the plaintiffs are claiming that this single drug method isn’t the same.

That’s a rather thin argument, isn’t it? Saying that the execution must be carried out “in the manner” as it would in the state where the crime took place surely refers to the general method. If, for example, the state still used the electric chair and you proposed to hang the convict, then you would be in violation of the FDPA. But these cases are all using the same method, only with a different set of drugs.

This is pretty much the same thing as saying that if the state used electrocution, the federal government couldn’t proceed unless they had the exact same level of voltage and current and the same design for the chair.

We should also keep in mind that these are prisoners (described by the Attorney General as among “the worst of the worst”) who have not only been found guilty of murder under special circumstances but who have exhausted all of their appeals. Included on the list is Danny Lee, who was convicted of murdering a gun dealer and his entire family, including an eight-year-old girl. Lezmond Mitchell stabbed a 63-year-old grandmother to death, later slitting her 9-year-old grandaughter’s throat, beheaded both of them and buried them in a shallow grave.

Wesley Purkey was convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, dismembering and burning her body and dumping her in a septic pond. To top that off, he bludgeoned an 80-year-old female polio sufferer to death with a claw hammer. Alfred Bourgeois tortured, sexually assaulted, and killed his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He had been torturing and abusing her for all of her very short, tragic life.

No matter how you may personally feel about the death penalty, this isn’t exactly a cast of characters that should be generating much sympathy. They have evaded their final justice as ordered by the courts for decades. Seeing the courts once again toss these cases back into some sort of legal gray area based on such a technicality only prolongs these horrible stories and further delays justice for the families of the victims.