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Feds execute first in 17 years (copy)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The federal government Tuesday carried out its first execution in almost two decades, killing by lethal injection a man convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

The execution of Daniel Lewis Lee came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal delays, reviving the debate over capital punishment during a time of widespread social unrest. And the Trump administration’s determination to proceed with executions added a new chapter to the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Just before he died at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, Lee, professed his innocence.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer,” said Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

The government is scheduled to execute two more men this week, including Wesley Ira Purkey on Wednesday for the killing of a Kansas City teenager in 1998. But legal experts say the 68-year-old Purkey, who suffers from dementia, has a greater chance of avoiding that fate because of his mental state.

On Friday, former Iowan Dustin Honken is scheduled to be executed for the 1993 killings of five people — two of them children. The former drug kingpin would be the first Iowan put to death by the government since 1963.

The decision by the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with executions — the first since 2003 — has drawn scrutiny from civil rights groups and the wider public. Relatives of Lee’s victims sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.

Critics argued the government was creating a manufactured urgency for political gain. One of Lee’s lawyers, Ruth Friedman, said it was “beyond shameful that the government, in the end, carried out this execution in haste.”

But Attorney General William Barr said, “Lee finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”

Barr had said earlier that the Justice Department had a duty to carry out the sentences, partly to provide closure to the victims’ families and others in the communities where the killings happened.

However, relatives of those killed by Lee in 1996 argued he deserved life in prison rather than execution. They wanted to be present to counter any contention the execution was being done on their behalf but said concern about the coronavirus kept them away.

Lee’s lawyers tried multiple appeals to halt the execution, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 early Tuesday that it could move forward. He died at 8:07 a.m. EDT.

The victims’ relatives noted Lee’s co-defendant and the reputed ringleader, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence.

Kehoe, of Colville, Washington, recruited Lee in 1995 to join his white supremacist organization, known as the Aryan Peoples’ Republic. Two years later, they were arrested for the killings of gun dealer William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, about 75 miles northwest of Little Rock.

At a 1999 trial, prosecutors said Kehoe and Lee stole guns and $50,000 in cash from the Muellers as part of their plan to establish a whites-only nation.

Prosecutors said Lee and Kehoe incapacitated the Muellers and questioned Sarah about where they could find money and ammunition. Then, they used stun guns on the victims, sealed trash bags with duct tape on their heads to suffocate them, taped rocks to their bodies and dumped them in a nearby bayou.

A U.S. District Court judge had put a hold on Lee’s execution Monday, over concerns from death row inmates on how executions were to be carried out, and an appeals court upheld it, but the high court overturned it.

On Tuesday morning, Lee had a pulse oximeter on a finger of his left hand, to monitor his oxygen level, and his arms, which had tattoos, were in black restraints, IV tubes coming through a metal panel in the wall.

He breathed heavily before the drug was injected and moved his legs and feet. As the drug was being administered, he raised his head to look around. In a few moments, his chest was no longer moving.

Lee was in the execution chamber with two Bureau of Prisons officials, a U.S. marshal and his spiritual adviser, described by a prisons spokesperson as an “Appalachian pagan minister.” They and Lee didn’t wear masks.

One of the senior prison officials announced Lee’s time of death, and the curtain closed.

There have been two state executions in the U.S. since the pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide in mid-March — one in Texas and one in Missouri, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama had one in early March.

Executions on the federal level have been rare, and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Since then, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.

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WATCH NOW: Too much work, pandemic stress Waterloo street budget

WATERLOO — The city may have overcommitted its street repair budget as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens future revenues.

Waterloo City Council members are debating whether to scrap or scale back the annual asphalt overlay project expected to be funded this year with local-option sales tax dollars.

They voted unanimously Monday to delay voting on a $3.22 million contract with Aspro Inc. to put a new asphalt surface on portions of 14 city streets.

The city opened the construction bid in April but put the contract award on hold for 81 days and counting based on concerns flagging retail sales due to COVID-19 would cause sales tax revenue to fall.

Waterloo uses its 1 percent local option sales tax revenue to replace and resurface failing roads and to provide matching dollars for grants to build new streets.

Chief Financial Officer Michelle Weidner said the city will have committed to spend $9.3 million in option tax construction money if it approves the entire overlay contract. Council members had budgeted less than $8.5 million.

“We’re already going to be dipping into fund balance by about $850,000, and that’s only if we get all the revenue we budgeted to get this year,” she said. “I am very concerned about this rate of construction right now and not knowing what the COVID future will bring us right now.

“I’m certainly not opposed to any of the projects,” she added. “I just wish there was enough money in the piggy bank to pay for them.”

Along with the annual street reconstruction and street overlay contracts, the city also funds some engineering salaries and puts seal coats on unimproved streets with local option tax funds. It is also being eyed to match a state grant to improve Newell Street in the Northeast Industrial Park and to fill a possible shortfall in the University Avenue reconstruction project.

City Engineer Jamie Knutson said dropping or scaling back the overlay contract would create several problems for the city and could mean some wards don’t see any work in 2020.

“There are streets from everybody’s wards that are in this,” he said. “For the last 25 years we’ve tried to make sure … because everybody pays this local option, that every ward gets some work every year.”

Knutson also noted a few of the streets in the overlay project were designed to tie into other projects, including the Newell widening, and a turning lane to be installed at West Ridgeway Avenue and Greyhound Drive. Lafayette Street, in the overlay list, is a 2021 RAGBRAI bicycle route.

“There are a lot of streets on here that are not in great shape,” he said. “I would argue that all of them are a priority.”

A majority of council members, including Dave Boesen, Pat Morrissey, Margaret Klein and Jonathan Grieder, all asked Knutson and staff to return with a recommendation next week to remove some of the streets from the overlay contract, even if it means some wards miss out.

Grieder said he believed residents would understand the situation given the potential COVID-19 impact.

“We have to just prioritize for this year, because this year is this year and hopefully never happens again,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

Councilman Jerome Amos Jr. voiced the only objection to holding off on the contract award.

“I understand the COVID issue; I understand CFO Weidner’s concerns,” Amos said. “But as a city I’m really concerned we’re letting this control us and we’re not moving forward with the things we should be doing for the citizens.”

Streets slated to get a new asphalt surface in the pending overlay contract include: West 11th Street between South and Washington streets; Easton Avenue from Hammond Avenue to 11th Street; a portion of Flammang Drive east of Hammond; Forest Avenue from Randolph Street to Hammond; Greyhound Drive from U.S. Highway 63 to Ridgeway Avenue; and Hartman Avenue between Ansborough and Janney avenues.

Other overlay streets are Lafayette Street from Fairview Avenue to Oak Avenue; Meadow Lane from Russell Road to Ansborough; Newell Street from east of Springview Street to Northeast Drive; Rachael Street between Nancy and Wendy roads; Reed Street between Arlington and Hanover streets; San Marnan Drive’s frontage road from Flammang to Penneys Street; Stephan Avenue between Falls and Stratford avenues; and Tower Park Drive from Johnathan Street to Kimball Avenue.

Photos: Storm Damage

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‘Everybody back to school’ should be goal, governor says

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday pledged to work with local districts to ensure schools are prepared to safely open this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The goal should be to get everybody back to school,” she said.

Reynolds made the comments in Webster City when she was asked if she is concerned districts may have difficulty finding substitute teachers if too many full-time teachers contract COVID-19.

She said the state faced similar concerns about health care, day care and child care workforces.

“A big chunk of Iowa’s workforce has stayed up and running throughout the pandemic,” Reynolds said. “But we do know that that is an issue, and we’re looking at that right now and seeing what we can do.”

Coronavirus cases have been steadily climbing as more of the economy reopens.

As required by the state education department, Iowa districts have been designing contingency plans for the upcoming school year. Districts have been instructed to design plans for normal operations, online-only operations, and a hybrid.

Each district will make its own decisions about how to operate when the school year starts, as early as Aug. 24.

“As school districts are being innovative, I believe that school districts and teachers know without hesitation that our kids need to be in the classroom,” Reynolds said. “We are doing them a disservice by not opening these schools back up and getting them to school. But we have to be flexible, we have to think outside of the box, and we have to look at different alternatives.”

Most districts have not yet determined which plan they will employ. One notable exception is the Des Moines district, the largest in the state, which will offer multiple models: online only, or a hybrid schedule with some days spent in class and others online.

“Giving parents the option, with kids that have underlying conditions, or someone in a household that does, to go 100% online, that’s a parent’s choice, and we most certainly should offer that,” Reynolds said. “But I think the goal should be to get everybody back to school.”

Reynolds said the state will work with districts to ensure educational staff has protective equipment, and said data suggests children appear less likely to contract and spread the virus. She also noted some staff could be at risk because the virus is more deadly to older individuals and those with underlying health conditions.

“We need to take that into account when we’re putting the (school) infrastructure in place,” Reynolds said.

The leader of the state’s largest public teacher union said Tuesday that for educators, the issue is not whether to get students back to school but how to do so safely.

“There is not an educator in Iowa who is not concerned about their students and who does not want to see them back at school. That’s not the issue,” Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said in a statement. “The issue is that students put their trust in us to ensure they are safe and well cared for when they are in our schools. We will not let them down. We will not knowingly place them in harm’s way by asking them to come into an environment that is not safe.”

Beranek said the union is asking the state education and public health departments for “basic health and safety guidelines, including mandatory face coverings for staff and students, social distancing, smaller class sizes, assurances that screening procedures and protocols will be in place to monitor and isolate, and proper daily disinfection guidelines.”

Gladbrook-Reinbeck's Cullen Eiffler pitches the seventh inning against Belle Plaine during Tuesday night's game.

Experts: Good news on vaccine

The first COVID-19 vaccine tested in the U.S. revved up people’s immune systems just the way scientists had hoped, researchers reported Tuesday — as the shots are poised to begin key final testing.

“No matter how you slice this, this is good news,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press.

The experimental vaccine, developed by Fauci’s colleagues at the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., will start its most important step around July 27: A 30,000-person study to prove if the shots really are strong enough to protect against the coronavirus.

But Tuesday, researchers reported anxiously awaited findings from the first 45 volunteers who rolled up their sleeves back in March. Sure enough, the vaccine provided a hoped-for immune boost.

Those early volunteers developed what are called neutralizing antibodies in their bloodstream — molecules key to blocking infection — at levels comparable to those found in people who survived COVID-19, the research team reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“This is an essential building block that is needed to move forward with the trials that could actually determine whether the vaccine does protect against infection,” said Dr. Lisa Jackson of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle, who led the study.

There’s no guarantee but the government hopes to have results around the end of the year — record-setting speed for developing a vaccine.

The vaccine requires two doses, a month apart.

There were no serious side effects. But more than half the study participants reported flu-like reactions to the shots that aren’t uncommon with other vaccines — fatigue, headache, chills, fever and pain at the injection site. For three participants given the highest dose, those reactions were more severe; that dose isn’t being pursued.

Some of those reactions are similar to coronavirus symptoms but are temporary, lasting about a day and occur right after vaccination, researchers noted.

“Small price to pay for protection against COVID,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a vaccine expert who wasn’t involved with the study.

He called the early results “a good first step,” and is optimistic final testing could deliver answers about whether it’s really safe and effective by the beginning of next year.

“It would be wonderful. But that assumes everything’s working right on schedule,” Schaffner cautioned.

Meanwhile, Florida surpassed its daily record for coronavirus deaths Tuesday amid rising global worries of a resurgence, even as researchers announced that the first vaccine tested in the U.S. had worked to boost patients’ immune systems.

Florida’s 132 additional deaths topped a state mark set just last week. The figure likely includes deaths from the past weekend that had not been previously reported.

The new deaths raised the state’s seven-day average to 81 per day, more than double the figure of two weeks ago and now the second-highest in the United States behind Texas.

Tuesday’s results on the vaccine only included younger adults. The first-step testing later was expanded to include dozens of older adults, the age group most at risk from COVID-19. Those results aren’t public yet but regulators are evaluating them, and Fauci said final testing will include older adults, as well as people with chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus — and Black and Latino populations likewise affected.

Nearly two dozen possible COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of testing around the world. Candidates from China and Britain’s Oxford University also are entering final testing stages.

The 30,000-person study will mark the world’s largest study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine so far. And the NIH-developed shot isn’t the only one set for such massive U.S. testing, crucial to spot rare side effects. The government plans similar large studies of the Oxford candidate and another by Johnson & Johnson; separately, Pfizer Inc. is planning its own huge study.

Already, people can start signing up to volunteer for the different studies.

People think “this is a race for one winner. Me, I’m cheering every one of them on,” said Fauci, who directs NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“We need multiple vaccines. We need vaccines for the world, not only for our own country.”

In other developments:

  • A U.S. Senate primary race in Texas overshadowed by an alarming resurgence of the coronavirus came down to a runoff Tuesday between two Democrats trying to seize on what their party sees as a new opening in America’s biggest red state. Wearing masks and trying to keep their distance, voters headed out to polls in blazing 100-degree afternoon heat and at a moment when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is urging the public to stay home as Texas struggles to contain one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country.
  • In Britain, officials announced they will require people to wear face masks starting July 24, after weeks of dismissing their value. Also, French President Emmanuel Macron said masks will be required by Aug. 1, after recent rave parties and widespread backsliding on social distancing raised concerns the virus may be starting to rebound.