Feds Execute Second Inmate This Week After High Court Clears Way

Wesley Ira Purkey, center, is escorted by police officers in Kansas City, Kan., in 1998 after he was arrested in connection with the death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales. (Jim Barcus/The Kansas City Star via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. government executed the second federal inmate this week early Thursday morning, carrying out the death sentence for a man whose attorneys claimed he suffered from dementia. 

The Supreme Court allowed the Justice Department to proceed with the execution with a 5-4 ruling, after issuing a similar decision earlier this week for the Trump administration to carry out the first federal execution in nearly two decades. 

Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, was declared dead at 8:19 a.m. EST in Terre Haute, Indiana. The inmate, strapped to a gurney, expressed remorse before he was executed by lethal injection for the pain his actions caused his victim and also his adult daughter. 

His last words were: “This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever. Thank you.”

All four of the liberal justices dissented from Thursday’s ruling, echoing similar concerns voiced over the eleventh-hour execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on Tuesday.

“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,” Justices Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The Supreme Court decision also made way for the government to execute a third inmate, Dustin Lee Honken, by lethal injection on Friday, and Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28.

Breyer, in a separate dissent joined by Ginsburg on Thursday, said the cases before the court this week exemplified serious legal defects that plague the use of capital punishment. 

“That these problems have emerged so quickly suggests that they are the product not of any particular jurisdiction or the work of any particular court, prosecutor, or defense counsel, but of the punishment itself,” Breyer wrote. 

Purkey’s lawyers had claimed he suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and no longer understood why he was being executed. The inmate was convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, and was also found guilty on state charges for the murder of an 80-year-old woman. 

His death follows several attempts for a district judge to delay the proceeding while claims from Purkey, Lee and two other federal inmates remained pending before the Washington court.

The two injunctions from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, a Barack Obama appointee, set off a series of appeals and emergency motions in recent days, with the Trump administration quickly turning to the conservative majority of the Supreme Court to clear the way for the executions to proceed. 

The petitioners had argued new protocols taken up by the Trump administration last year to execute all four men using a single-lethal chemical dose violated federal law, including their Eighth Amendment right to not face cruel and unusual punishment for their crimes. 

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said the two executions carried out this week marked a dark period in American history. 

“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,” Stubbs said in a statement.

The ACLU attorney also criticized the government for carrying out the sentence during the coronavirus pandemic, forcing the Buddhist priest who had ministered to the prisoner to risk his own health to be present at the execution. 

“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,” Stubbs said.

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