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A sign stands outside the Federal Correctional Institution, Terre Haute, ahead of the planned federal execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 13, 2020.

BRYAN WOOLSTON/Reuters

A U.S. appeals court rejected on Monday a request by the justice department to overturn a lower court’s block on the first federal executions in 17 years while legal challenges to the lethal-injection protocol continue.

“We cannot say the government has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed in demonstrating that the district court abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction,” said a panel of the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. circuit.

“Just because the death penalty is involved is no reason to take shortcuts – indeed, it is a reason not to do so,” the judges added on Monday night.

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Earlier on Monday, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. district court in Washington ordered the justice department to delay four executions scheduled for July and August.

She said the inmates were likely to succeed in their claim that the new one-drug protocol using pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, breached a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments.

Attorney General William Barr had announced last July that the Justice Department would resume carrying out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row.

He originally scheduled five executions for last December, but was ordered to delay them by Chutkan while long-running lawsuits challenging the government’s lethal-injection protocol played out.

An appeals court overturned that injunction in April, and Barr announced new execution dates for July and August of four inmates, all men convicted of murdering children: Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken and Keith Nelson.

Chutkan’s new order came down less than seven hours before Lee’s execution was scheduled for Monday at the Justice Department’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Ind.

The Trump administration has also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Chutkan’s order, writing in its application that it was a “meritless injunction” that would “scramble” its plans to “administer a dignified and humane lethal injection.”

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