MICHAEL TARM - AP Legal Affairs Writer
Anti-death penalty activists asked a judge in a Tuesday lawsuit to order Indiana State Police to stop blocking roads to a prison where federal executions have resumed after a 17-year pause, arguing that the roadblocks constitute unconstitutional no-protest zones and impede protesters’ free-speech rights.
Hours before three July executions, troopers cut off public roads to the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, where all federal executions are carried out by lethal injection. Four more executions are planned for this month and September as part of the Trump administration’s resumption of federal executions.
The federal lawsuit filed in Indianapolis by ACLU of Indiana lawyers on behalf of the activists says blocked roads have forced demonstrators to gather nearly 2 miles (3.22 kilometers) from the prison by a car dealership next to a highway, preventing them from mounting credible protests. It seeks an injunction permitting protesters to gather just outside prison gates.
“The image of persons protesting and holding vigil alongside a car dealership on a state highway hardly compares to the image of persons doing the exact same thing outside the entrance to a federal prison,” written arguments filed with the lawsuit say.
Indiana State Police is the sole defendant named in the suit. Sgt. Matt Ames, an ISP spokesman, said the state agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons did set aside a fenced-in area within the sprawling prison grounds for demonstrators. But the lawsuit says it is too restrictive and too isolated, making it impossible for protesters to be seen by and interact with members of the public and media.
Bureau of Prisons rules approve only a short list of items protesters can bring into the designated protest site. It includes Bibles, rosaries and candles. It specifically bans cellphones and recording devices, as well as signs made of wood or metal.
Abraham Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, one of the plaintiffs, said he has protested executions in a dozen states and has never seen such restrictions. He speculated that there may be discomfort about what he said was President Donald Trump’s push to restore executions to burnish a reputation as a law-and-order president.
“Executions used to be in public because there was a belief that if people could see it, it would scare them into behaving,” he said. “I think what is happening here is the people who are scared now are the ones carrying out the executions. Perhaps they don’t want to be seen as tools of the Trump campaign.”
Those suing also include the Indiana Abolition Coalition and the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Security was tight during the first federal executions in nearly 20 years in mid-July. The first execution on July 14 was of former white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee. Two others, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honken, were executed later the same week.
Heavily armed guards encircled the small execution building inside the prison. A high black curtain was also draped around the building, completely blocking views of the death house.
Rules for journalists attending the execution include that they leave their pens and notebooks at a media center before heading to the death-chamber facility. Prison officials provided pens and paper only minutes before the executions began.
The executions of Christopher Andre Vialva and William Emmett LeCroy are scheduled for in late September.
Vialva was convicted in the 1999 kidnapping and killing of an Iowa couple in Texas. LeCroy was convicted of raping and killing a 30-year-old nurse in 2001.
The only Native American on federal death row, Lezmond Mitchell, is scheduled to be put to death on Aug. 26. Keith Dwayne Nelson’s execution is set for the same week.
Mitchell was convicted of killing of a woman and her 9-year-old granddaughter. Nelson was convicted of kidnapping a 10-year-old girl in Kansas, raping and then strangling her.
Lee, Purkey and Honken’s victims also included children.
AP writer Rick Callahan in Indianapolis also contributed to this report.