WASHINGTON — A 52-year-old man was put to death on Friday for the 1993 murders of five people, the third federal execution this week after a 17-year hiatus of federal capital punishment.
The execution of Dustin Lee Honken proceeded without any last-minute delays, unlike those of the two other federal inmates who had been put to death in previous days. The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the Justice Department’s execution protocol early Thursday, clearing the way for his lethal injection on Friday afternoon. Mr. Honken was pronounced dead at 4:36 p.m. at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
He spoke only briefly in his final moments, according to a journalist who observed the execution.
“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me,” Mr. Honken said.
The Justice Department announced its intention last summer to revive federal capital punishment. But questions over the constitutionality of the lethal injection protocol — using a single drug, pentobarbital — delayed its resumption.
A spate of last-minute legal challenges had forced the Justice Department to postpone the executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, and Wesley Ira Purkey, 68. A federal judge in Washington issued stays to delay their deaths on Monday and Wednesday, citing constitutional issues with the proposed execution protocol.
The Supreme Court acted swiftly in both cases, vacating the preliminary injunctions hours afterward. Mr. Lee was executed Tuesday morning, and Mr. Purkey on Thursday.
Mr. Honken was indicted in 1993 on a charge of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. One of his two dealers, Greg Nicholson, had secretly recorded Mr. Honken, prompting his arrest, and later testified against him before a grand jury.
Days before his scheduled plea hearing, Mr. Honken and his girlfriend, Angela Johnson, traveled to Mr. Nicholson’s home in Iowa and forced him to record a statement of Mr. Honken’s innocence. They kidnapped Mr. Nicholson along with his girlfriend and her two daughters, 6 and 10, and killed them in the woods.
Months later, Mr. Honken and Ms. Johnson killed his other dealer for fear that he would testify against Mr. Honken. The court dismissed those charges because two witnesses went missing.
Both Mr. Honken and Ms. Johnson were ultimately condemned to death for the murders, but a judge overturned Ms. Johnson’s sentence because her counsel did not present evidence of her deteriorated mental health. She is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Religious advisers to Mr. Honken argued that he had changed since his conviction. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, at the time the archbishop of Indianapolis, visited Mr. Honken and said he had witnessed “spiritual growth in faith and compassion.”
“He is serene about the future and tries to show solace for his companions on death row,” Cardinal Tobin, now the archbishop of Newark, wrote in a plea to President Trump to commute Mr. Honken’s sentence. The four Catholic bishops in Iowa, where Mr. Honken’s crimes occurred, also called for the president to spare his life. The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty.
The Rev. Mark O’Keefe, the spiritual adviser during Mr. Honken’s execution at the prison in Terre Haute, said that scheduling it during the coronavirus pandemic put him and older nuns to whom he administers communion at risk. Father O’Keefe and Mr. Purkey’s spiritual adviser sued the Justice Department, arguing that the timing of the executions burdened their right to free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court dismissed those claims early Thursday morning.
Mr. Honken was the first Iowa inmate to be put to death since 1963; the state abolished capital punishment two years later.
In a statement, Shawn Nolan, his lawyer, said that his client had repented for his crimes and worked to redeem himself.
“There was no reason for the government to kill him, in haste or at all,” Mr. Nolan said. “In any case, they failed. The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone.”