MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The federal government has not executed a death row inmate since 2003 - that may be changing. Attorney General William Barr is clearing the way to resume executions in the federal prison system. In an announcement this morning, the Justice Department said it wants to schedule execution dates for five convicted murderers. This could start as early as December. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this. She is here now to talk about it.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: And I want to just warn listeners before we get going there may be some brief descriptions of violence as we chat this out over the next couple minutes. Start with, why now? As we said, the federal government has not carried out an execution for some years now.
JOHNSON: Actually, a senior Justice Department official tells me the previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, launched this effort, put it into motion. But it's actually happening on the watch of his successor, Bill Barr. Barr says the federal government owes it to victims and their families. He points out, even though there haven't been many executions in the federal system, that Justice Departments representing presidents from both political parties have continued to seek capital punishment in court.
Barr says the people on federal death row are the worst of the worst. And he's directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule five inmates for executions, all starting - if it goes to plan - December 9.
KELLY: And who are these five? What do we know about them?
JOHNSON: The attorney general says they're all murderers who preyed on children and the elderly. The first is named Daniel Lewis Lee. He's a member of a white supremacist group who killed a family of three people. The next is another inmate. He stabbed a grandmother, then drove with her granddaughter for 30 miles before killing the granddaughter very brutally too. The Justice Department says all five of these men have exhausted their appeals, so it says there are few, if any, legal hurdles to executing them later this year and early next year.
KELLY: I'm thinking most violent crimes are - tend to be prosecuted by the state - right? - not the federal government. How do you even land on federal death row?
JOHNSON: There has to be some kind of federal connection in the case. There are about 60 people on federal death row right now. Many of them killed somebody on federal land or inside a federal prison. For others, there were murders as part of a drug crime or a broader federal conspiracy.
Now, the last person executed in the federal system in 2003 killed an Army private. Before that, the most prominent was probably Timothy McVeigh, who was put to death in 2001 for his role in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Now, some other well-known people on death row right now in the federal system include Dylann Roof, who shot nine people at the AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and Jahar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of crimes related to the Boston Marathon bombing.
KELLY: I have - I guess it's a practical question because I'm remembering a number of executions that were stalled because there's been this shortage of drugs available to carry out executions. Has that changed?
JOHNSON: It has not changed. But Attorney General Bill Barr says the Justice Department no longer wants to use that three-drug cocktail. Instead, he says, Justice is going to follow the protocol already deployed by states like Georgia and Texas. They use just one of those drugs. And Bill Barr says that method has been upheld by federal courts already, so he says it's not out of line with the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
KELLY: And, Carrie, this decision by the federal government would seemed to run counter to what we're actually watching happen in a number of states, isn't that right?
JOHNSON: Exactly. Across the country, the population on death row in states has been shrinking for many years. There were just 25 executions last year. They seem to happen more often in southern states. And the Justice Department says it now takes on average more than 20 years between a state death sentence and an actual execution. So in many states, people are dying of natural causes before they can be executed.
KELLY: Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
KELLY: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.