Judge Overturned by Supreme Court Blocks Another Federal Execution

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. Purkey was also convicted of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old girl and is scheduled to be executed on July 15, 2020, in Terre Haute, Ind. (Jim Barcus/The Kansas City Star via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Intervening against the execution of federal death-row inmates for the second time in 48 hours, a Washington judge granted an injunction Wednesday to a man who claims to be suffering from dementia. 

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan comes a day after the first federal execution in nearly two decades, conducted in short order after the Supreme Court vacated the delay she had put in place Monday.

Today Chutkan found the next federal inmate scheduled to die, Wesley Ira Purkey, is likely to succeed on his claim for a mental competency hearing where he would outline a history of sexual abuse and mental health problems going back to his childhood. 

“Success on this claim would not challenge his death sentence but would only provide him a competency hearing,” the Obama appointee wrote in a 14-page opinion. “Again, plaintiff appears to concede that there is an acceptable alternative — his execution can occur after he is found competent.”

The Trump administration immediately appealed Chutkan’s ruling Wednesday morning. 

Rebecca Woodman, an attorney for Purkey, said they are eager to present extensive medical evidence of why the inmate should not be executed based on mental incompetence.

“Wes Purkey is a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” Woodman said. “Though he has long accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him.” 

In a separate Wednesday ruling, Chutkan blocked the U.S. government from carrying out the death penalty against Purkey on Wednesday, Dustin Lee Honken on Friday, and Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28.

Wesley Ira Purkey, pictured here in 2000, was scheduled to die on July 15, 2000, in Terre Haute, Ind. The federal inmate was convicted of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old girl. (Kansas Department of Corrections image via Courthouse News)

“The likely harm that plaintiffs would suffer if the court does not grant injunctive relief far outweighs any potential harm to Defendants,” that 18-page opinion states.

Chutkan’s ruling relies on a possible violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. A day earlier, in allowing the government to execute Daniel Lewis Lee, the Supreme Court rejected Chutkan’s finding that challenges to the lethal-injection protocols under the Eighth Amendment had a strong likelihood of success. 

The Justice Department responded to Chutkan’s latest ruling with an emergency motion for a stay, to carry out the executions as planned. 

“The district court’s latest injunction, relying on a concededly tertiary rationale, is even less defensible than its first two, and it defies the Supreme Court’s direction yesterday in Lee,” the motion states. 

Pushing back on the Justice Department’s accusation of an “abusive delay,” Chutkan noted that Lee was executed even while he had claims still pending.

“This court agrees that ‘last-minute stays should be the extreme exception,’” her ruling on the consolidated cases states, “but here, it is Defendants’ rush to execute Plaintiffs that has led to this extreme exception.”

Purkey was found guilty in 2003 of kidnapping and murdering a 16-year-old girl. The other two prisoners scheduled for execution were also found guilty on federal murder charges, and Lee was convicted of murdering a family of three in 1996.

Chutkan made clear her responsibility is to the petitioners. 

“The court’s sole responsibility is to endeavor to address, thoroughly and promptly, the claims of the four individuals whose execution dates were announced by the government only one month before they were to occur,” she wrote in her ruling for Purkey on mental-competency claims. 

The legal battle hinges on new execution protocols announced by the Attorney General William Barr last year, after a 17-year hiatus on the use of capital punishment by federal authorities. 

Barr has said the government should carry out the sentences to fulfill its duty to the men’s victims.

“The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws,” the attorney general said in a statement last month.  

Daniel Lewis Lee waits for his Oct. 31 1997, arraignment hearing for murder in the Pope County Detention Center in Russellville, Ark. (Dan Pierce/The Courier via AP, File)

As with Lee, the Trump administration plans to conduct its next three executions via lethal injection using a single dose of pentobarbital. State executioners by contrast typically use a three-drug cocktail.

Chutkan had found credible expert testimony that the federal method would cause “excruciating suffering,” sending the death row prisoners into “flash pulmonary edema” — a respiratory reaction triggering the sensation of drowning and asphyxiation. 

Following the 5-4 Supreme Court determination on Tuesday that edema sets in post-mortem or after the inmate has lost all sensation, Chutkan’s latest ruling says the risk does not justify last-minute judicial intervention. 

She found instead that other claims that the government violates federal law with the new execution protocols warrant injunctive relief. 

“The public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process, and is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed in accordance with federal law,” Chutkan wrote. 

Noting the government has waited eight years to roll out new protocols for federal executions, Chutkan argued that long delay undermines claims of necessary urgency in carrying out the death sentences. 

Cutting off any possible accusations that the plaintiffs are at fault for the rushed nature of the legal proceedings in recent days, the judge blamed the Trump administration for scheduling the executions just one month ago with claims still pending. 

“Defendants further chose to schedule three federal executions…for the same week,” Chutkan wrote, “knowing that Plaintiffs’ claims raised a number of ‘novel and difficult’ questions, both in this and other actions.”

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