U.S. News

Buddhist adviser sues to stop execution citing COVID-19 risk

By Danielle Haynes   |   July 2, 2020 at 4:45 PM
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

July 2 (UPI) -- The spiritual adviser for a federal death row inmate sued the Trump administration Thursday, saying he has a religious obligation to attend the execution in two weeks but that the coronavirus poses a risk to him.

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

His is one of four federal executions Attorney William Barr ordered to be scheduled last month amid a court battle.

The Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, Purkey's Buddhist spiritual adviser, though, said the COVID-19 pandemic would make it difficult for him to attend the execution at the U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

The prison has been on lockdown to all visitors to prevent the spread of the virus, but after the scheduling of the executions June 15, corrections officials allowed legal and spiritual visits to resume for the four men.

"Though visitation was resumed, [the Bureau of Prisons] did not have any plan or policies in place to ensure such visits, let alone the executions themselves, could be done safely and in compliance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines during the pandemic," said the suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP on Hartkemeyer's behalf.

Hartkemeyer, who said he's been advising Purkey for 11 years, said he has a history of lung illnesses that make him "highly vulnerable to the virus."

"It's my religious duty as a zen buddhist priest to attend the execution of a man I've been spiritually advising, but I may have to compromise my beliefs to protect my health," he said.

Hartkemeyer asked for Purkey's execution to be delayed until a vaccination or treatment for COVID-19 can be developed.

Purkey's legal team asked for a stay of execution in June saying their client's advancing Alzheimer's disease prevents him from understanding his punishment. Executing him in his current condition, they said, violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.

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

The stay request also cited the 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.

Purkey was part of a lawsuit on behalf of four death row inmates challenging Barr's efforts to resume federal executions. The suit also named 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 Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal Monday.

At issue in the lawsuit was 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.

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.

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.

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.