July 14 (UPI) -- A divided Supreme Court early Tuesday ruled the Justice Department may resume federal executions, vacating an appellate court's last-minute hold against the federal government performing its first death by lethal injection in nearly 20 years.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court overturned a preliminary injunction put in place hours earlier that prevented the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection earlier on Monday.
The injunction also barred the execution of three other death row inmates scheduled to die in the next few weeks.
The justices said the plaintiffs, who are the four death row inmates, "have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a federal court."
The decision came hours after a district court put in place the temporary injunction that enjoined the four executions from being performed on the grounds that the use of the drug pentobarbital in lethal injections constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The Justice Department has sought to execute the four death row inmates since July of last year but the process has been snagged in the courts over its decision to adopt the use of the single-drug pentobarbital instead of the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions.
Fourteen states have used the single-drug process in more than 200 executions since 2010, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons' adoption of it has pinged through the courts since last summer.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr again scheduled the four executions in June after a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated an earlier injunction. However, Lee's scheduled execution at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind., has been on and off for days.
In its decision, the justices wrote that while the plaintiffs cite new expert declarations suggesting pentobarbital causes respiratory distress that mimics the sensation of drowning the defense has produced competing expert testimony that that condition "occurs only after the prisoner has died or been rendered fully insensate."
Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor each wrote a dissenting opinion that were joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
"The government is poised to carry out the first federal executions in nearly two decades. Yet, because of the court's rush to dispose of this litigation in an emergency posture, there will be no meaningful judicial review of the grave, fact-heavy challenges respondents bring to the way in which the government plans to execute them," Sotomayor wrote.
Lee was sentenced to die for his role as an accomplice in the 1996 murders of William Mueller, his wife, Nancy Mueller, and stepdaughter, Sarah Powell, in Georgia.