The pandemic is sweeping through death row at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., with at least 14 of the roughly 50 men there having tested positive, lawyers for the inmates and others familiar with their cases said.
The outbreak comes as the Trump administration is seeking to continue the wave of federal executions it has conducted, with three more scheduled before President Trump leaves office on Jan. 20. Two of the three people scheduled to be put to death next month — Corey Johnson and Dustin John Higgs — have tested positive for the virus.
Already their lawyers are saying their execution dates should be withdrawn. And postponement past Jan. 20 could be the difference between life and death, as President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he would work to end federal capital punishment.
The Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions about what protocols they would use to determine whether to delay execution of a prisoner who had Covid-19.
But there is evidence that executions can become spreading events.
After the November execution of Orlando Hall, a Bureau of Prisons official revealed in a court filing that eight members of the execution team had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that five of them planned to travel to Terre Haute for the December executions. Mr. Hall’s spiritual adviser said he also tested positive after attending the execution.
There is a precedent of sorts for citing the virus as cause for postponement. The third person scheduled to be executed before Mr. Trump leaves office is Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row. She is not held at Terre Haute, and has not tested positive for the virus.
But after the government announced its intention to execute Ms. Montgomery — convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and abducting her unborn child — two of her lawyers traveled to visit her at a federal prison in Texas. They later tested positive for the coronavirus.
A court order then temporarily enjoined the government from executing Ms. Montgomery, who was scheduled to die this month, and the Justice Department delayed her execution until January.
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