Wesley Purkey, now 68, had been scheduled to die Wednesday for the 1998 rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. Photo courtesy attorney for Wesley Purkey
July 15 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Wednesday blocked what was scheduled to be the second federal execution this week after a 17-year moratorium.
The Department of Justice had planned to execute Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in 1998. After killing the teen, he dismembered, burned and dumped her body in a septic pond. He was also convicted in state court of murdering 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales with a hammer.
The order by Washington, D.C., District Judge Tanya Chutkan blocks Purkey's execution. In a second order, Chutkan imposed an injunction on two other scheduled executions, renewing a challenge to the government's new protocol involving the drug used for lethal injection.
"The court finds that at least one of plaintiffs' claims has a likelihood of success on the merits, and that absent a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm," Chutkan wrote in her order on Purkey's case.
Attorneys for Purkey have argued his execution should at least be delayed because dementia has left him unable to understand his punishment.
Wednesday's was supposed to be the federal government's second execution in two days, after Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death on Tuesday at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Ind., which was the first federal execution in 17 years. A third execution at the facility, for inmate Dustin Lee Honken, was scheduled for Friday -- and a fourth, for Keith Dwayne Nelson, on Aug. 28.
Attorneys for Purkey filed a request for a stay due to their client's health. In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in June, Purkey's attorneys said executing him in his current condition violates the Eighth Amendment.
"Wes Purkey is a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer's disease," defense attorney Rebecca Woodman said.
"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 attorneys said two medical experts -- Dr. Bhushan Agharkar and Dr. Jonathan DeRight -- have diagnosed him with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
The request also cited the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it poses a danger for inmates taken to the Indiana prison for execution, including attorneys, news media and family members.
Attorney General William Barr ordered the resumption of federal executions a year ago but legal challenges delayed the completion of the first sentence until Tuesday. In 2014, former President Barack Obama ordered then-Attorney General Eric Holder to review the use of the death penalty in the United States, which effectively imposed a moratorium on all federal executions.
Attorneys for all four federal death row inmates attempted to halt the resumption of federal executions as part of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the execution protocol.
Chutkan blocked the executions with an injunction on Monday, on the grounds that using only pentobarbital in lethal injections, instead of a traditional three-drug combination, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eight Amendment. The Supreme Court vacated the injunction early Tuesday, allowing all four scheduled executions to proceed.
Purkey's would be the ninth execution in the United States this year and second at the federal level.
Before Tuesday, 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.