In Another Dead-of-Night Ruling, US Supreme Court's Right-Wing Majority Approves Execution of Man With Dementia

Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action, an execution abolitionist group, protests near the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex where death row inmate Wesley Ira Purkey was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on July 15, Purkey was killed the following morning. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In Another Dead-of-Night Ruling, US Supreme Court's Right-Wing Majority Approves Execution of Man With Dementia

"Proceeding with Purkey's execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries."

For the second time in as many days, the right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court issued a middle-of-the-night approval for the Trump administration's resumption of federal executions, clearing the way for the government to kill Wesley Ira Purkey early Thursday morning despite arguments from his attorneys that due to his dementia he does not understand why he is being put to death.

"Wes Purkey is a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer's disease," Rebecca Woodman, one of his attorneys, toldNewsweek Wednesday. "He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row, but as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him."

Purkey, who was sentenced to death for the murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Missouri, said before his execution Thursday that "I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused to Jennifer's family... I am deeply sorry. I deeply regret the pain I caused to my daughter, who I love so very much. This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever."

Killed by the U.S. government, Purkey's reported time of death was 8:19 am EDT.

In a 5-4 decision in the middle of the night, the Supreme Court lifted injunctions granted Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by the court's other three liberals that "proceeding with Purkey's execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries."

"The Supreme Court issued another unsigned opinion at 2:30 am that allows the federal government to execute Wesley Purkey," anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean wrote on Twitter just after 3 am. "The government is going ahead without a valid execution warrant. This will be the second illegal execution carried out this week."

The Associated Pressreported before Purkey was killed Thursday morning that "a lower court put an emergency hold on the execution for one hour as it weighed issues in the case, further delaying what initially had been slated for Wednesday evening at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana."

After Purkey's execution, Prejean tweeted that "as far as we know right now, the government did not have a valid execution warrant. We also don't yet know how long he was strapped down to the gurney--possibly as long as 4.5 hours. More on this travesty soon."

Purkey was the second federal death row inmate executed this week after a 17-year hiatus on federal execution. Following legal battles, Daniel Lewis Lee was killed at the federal facility Tuesday morning despite arguments that his execution was illegal because the death warrant had expired and concerns about the Trump administration's single-drug protocol.

After President Donald Trump's Justice Department spent over two years secretly establishing a supply chain for the drug pentobarbital, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in July 2019 that the administration would resume federal executions using just that barbiturate rather than a previous three-drug cocktail that ran into supply problems, ignoring concerns that the new protocol risks inmates "being tortured to death."

Lawyers for Lee, Purkey, and two other federal death row inmates--Dustin Lee Honken, who is set to be killed Friday, and Keith Dwayne Nelson, whose execution date is August 28--have argued that the pentobarbital protocol violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The executions this week have provoked criticism of the administration for killing inmates in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and elicited a fresh wave of calls for an end to the death penalty nationwide:

"This morning's execution, following Danny Lee's on Tuesday, marks a truly dark period for our country," Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement Thursday. "After a rushed and truncated review, the courts abandoned the constitutional prohibition on executing people who lack rational understanding of the reason for their execution in order to allow the government to proceed with the shameful execution of Wes Purkey, despite his pending competency appeal."

"Every single person involved in this morning's execution--from our client, Rev. Hartkemeyer, who ministered to Mr. Purkey, to the local and national reporters, to lawyers, and [federal Bureau of Prisons] staff--had to forgo their safety and risk exposure to Covid-19 in order to participate in the taking of Mr. Purkey's life," she added. "There was no reason for this administration to restart federal executions now--after a nearly two-decade hiatus, during the worst public health crisis of our lifetime--except to distract from its many failings, particularly its failure to keep people safe during this pandemic."

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, raised questions about the constitutionality of capital punishment earlier this week as they considered Lee's case. Breyer, again joined by Ginsburg, delivered a similar message in his dissent in Purkey's case Thursday.

"Two days ago, the federal government conducted its first execution in nearly two decades. Today, it will conduct its second," Breyer wrote (pdf). "Both cases have come before us with the defendants pointing to what I believe are serious legal defects of a kind that have long plagued the administration of the death penalty in the United States."

"A modern system of criminal justice must be reasonably accurate, fair, humane, and timely," he added. "Our recent experience with the federal government's resumption of executions adds to the mounting body of evidence that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with those values. I remain convinced of the importance of reconsidering the constitutionality of the death penalty itself."

The post was updated with additional comment from the ACLU.

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