TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) – On Wednesday, a judge stopped the execution of a man said to be suffering from dementia, who had been sentenced to die by lethal injection in the second federal government execution after a 17-year hiatus.
Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a gruesome kidnapping and murder in 1998, was slated for execution Wednesday at the American penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was executed on Tuesday after his eleventh hour have failed.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, DC imposed two injunctions on Wednesday that prohibit the Federal Office of Prisons from proceeding with Purkey’s execution. The Justice Department immediately appealed in both cases. A separate temporary stay was already in place by the United States Circuit 7th Court of Appeals.
Early morning legal disputes suggest that a series of disputes will continue in the hours ahead of Purkey’s scheduled execution, similar to what happened when the government executed Lee following a Supreme Court ruling.
Lee, convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a white-only nation, was the first of four condemned to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic that raged inside and outside prisons.
Purkey, 68, of Lansing, Kansas, was said to have been the second, but his lawyers had yet to ask for a Supreme Court ruling on his jurisdiction.
“This skill issue is a very strong issue on paper,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “In the past, the Supreme Court has suspended executions on this issue. At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies will go at the last minute. “
Chutkan did not rule on Purkey’s jurisdiction, but said the court must evaluate the application. He said that while the government may disagree with Purkey’s attorneys on his jurisdiction, there is no doubt that he would suffer “irreparable damage” if he were put to death before his claims could be evaluated.
Lee’s execution went on one day late. It was scheduled for Monday afternoon, but the Supreme Court only gave the go-ahead in a tight 5-4 early Tuesday ruling.
Purkey’s mental health problem arose in the run-up to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors said they raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her and dumped her ashes 200 miles (320 kilometers) away in a septic pond in Kansas. Purkey was sentenced separately and sentenced to life in the 80-year death of Mary Ruth Bales of Kansas City, Kansas.
But the legal questions about whether he was mentally fit to be tried or sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he is now mentally fit enough to be put to death. Purkey’s attorneys argue that it clearly is not, stating that in recent documents he suffers from the advancement of Alzheimer’s disease.
“He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row,” said one of these lawyers, Rebecca Woodman. “But as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute it.”
Purkey believes his scheduled execution is part of a conspiracy involving his lawyers, Woodman said. In other documents, they describe disappointments that people were spraying poison in his room and that drug dealers implanted a device in his chest to kill him.
While various legal issues in Purkey’s case have been raped, redesigned and resolved by the courts for nearly two decades, the issue of mental fitness for execution can only be addressed once a date has been set, according to Dunham, who teaches law courses on capital punishment . A date was set only last year.
“Competence is something that is always evolving,” so judges can only evaluate it in the weeks or days preceding a final execution date, he said.
In a historic 1986 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits the execution of someone who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he or she is executed. It concerned the case of Alvin Ford, who had been convicted of murder but whose mental health had deteriorated behind bars to the point, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.
Legal standards that someone has a rational understanding of why an execution is taking place can be complex, Dunham explained.
“I could say I’m Napoleon,” he said. “But if I say that I understand that Napoleon has been sentenced to death for a crime and is executed for it – this could allow for execution.”
Purkey’s mental problems go beyond Alzheimer’s, his lawyers said. They say that as a child he was subject to sexual and mental abuse and, at age 14, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and psychosis.
Last week, three mental health organizations urged American lawyer William Barr to stop Purkey’s execution and commute his life sentence without the possibility of probation. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center have said that the execution of people with mental disorders like Purkey “constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment and does not behave with” evolving decency standards “.”
The mother of the killed teenager, Glenda Lamont, told Kansas City Star last year that she had planned to attend Purkey’s execution.
“I don’t mean that I’m happy,” said Lamont. “At the same time, he is a madman who, in my opinion, does not deserve to breathe anymore.”
The start of Lee’s execution showed that many things can still happen before Purkey’s planned one.
On Monday, hours before Lee was sentenced to death, a U.S. District Court judge suspended the execution over death row inmates’ concerns over how executions were to be executed, and an appellate court held her confirmed, before the Supreme Court overthrown early Tuesday.