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Federal death row inmate with Alzheimer's seeks stay

Wesley Purkey received the death penalty for the 1998 rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Photo courtesy of attorney for Wesley Purkey
Wesley Purkey received the death penalty for the 1998 rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Photo courtesy of attorney for Wesley Purkey

June 23 (UPI) -- Attorneys for a federal death row inmate scheduled for execution next month have requested a stay, saying their client's advancing Alzheimer's disease prevents him from understanding his punishment.

Wesley Purkey, 68, is scheduled for execution July 15, 22 years after he killed 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Kan.

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In a filing made in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, Purkey's lawyers said executing him in his current condition violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

"Wes Purkey is a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer's disease," defense attorney Rebecca Woodman said.

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"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. He believes his execution is part of a large-scale conspiracy against him by the federal government in retaliation for his frequent challenges to prison conditions, and he believes his own lawyers are working against him within this conspiracy."

Purkey's lawyers said two medical experts -- Dr. Bhushan Agharkar and Dr. Jonathan DeRight -- have both diagnosed Purkey with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

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The stay request also cites the current coronavirus pandemic and the danger it poses to those who will be brought to the U.S. Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Ind., for the execution, including lawyers and family members.

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Purkey is also part of a lawsuit on behalf of four death row inmates challenging Attorney General William Barr's efforts to resume federal executions. The suit also names Daniel Lewis Lee, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken as plaintiffs.

The four sued the Trump administration last year after Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to resume carrying out death sentences 16 years after the last federal execution. The plaintiffs were among the first batch of executions scheduled to take place starting in December 2019, but a federal judge imposed a temporary moratorium in response to their lawsuit.

The District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction in April, giving Barr the green light to reschedule the executions of Lee (July 13), Purkey (July 15), Honken (July 17) and Keith Dwayne Nelson (Aug. 28). Bourgeois' has not been rescheduled.

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The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where it was awaiting litigation when Barr scheduled the executions.

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At issue in the lawsuit is the Justice Department's plan to institute a uniform lethal injection protocol rather than follow the individual protocols used by each state, which the law requires. Barr proposed using a single drug, pentobarbital, rather than the common three-drug cocktail used in many state executions.

Under a 1994 statute, all federal executions must be carried out in a "manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed." Government attorneys had argued the drugs used in the protocol are irrelevant, since the method of execution -- lethal injection -- is the same.

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Cate Stetson, an attorney for one of the death row inmates who challenged Barr's plan, told UPI earlier this year the federal government "rushed" its execution protocol in order to carry out death sentences.

"The district court's injunction was aimed at preventing the government from 'short-circuiting legitimate judicial process' and serving the public interest by 'attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,'" she said.

In 2014, former President Barack Obama ordered then-Attorney General Eric Holder to review the use of the death penalty in the United States, effectively implementing a moratorium on executions.

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The last federal execution was that of Gulf War veteran Louis Jones Jr. in March 2003 for the rape and murder of a fellow soldier, Pvt. Tracie McBride in 1995.

Jones admitted kidnapping the young female recruit at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, but his lawyer sought clemency by arguing Jones suffered behavior-altering brain damage from exposure to nerve gas during the Gulf War that gave him uncontrollable, violent urges.

Purkey was sentenced to death in 2004 for raping and killing Long. He was also convicted of the 1998 murder of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales in Kansas City, Kan.

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