WASHINGTON — The Justice Department executed a 68-year-old man on Thursday for the gruesome murder in 1998 of a teenage girl, the second time this week the federal government has carried out capital punishment after a 17-year hiatus.
Wesley Ira Purkey was put to death at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., by lethal injection after the Supreme Court rejected the last of a slew of legal challenges including assertions that he was not mentally competent.
He was pronounced dead at 8:19 a.m.
The Justice Department announced its intention to bring back federal capital punishment last summer. After a series of court fights over its plan to use a single drug for lethal injection, Attorney General William P. Barr scheduled four executions for this summer, the first by the federal government since 2003.
Mr. Purkey, the second on the list, was convicted of raping, killing, and dismembering a 16-year-old girl in Kansas City, Mo.
The Bureau of Prisons put to death Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, on Tuesday morning for his part in the murder of a family of three. Just hours before, the Supreme Court issued the final go-ahead, ruling in a split 5-4 decision in the dead of night that the federal government’s single-drug execution protocol was constitutional. The verdict cleared the way for Mr. Lee, Mr. Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken, scheduled to die on Friday, to be executed this week.
Mr. Purkey’s lawyers had argued that he was incompetent to be executed. They said he suffered from schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, which left him unable to comprehend why he was sentenced to death. He believed that his execution was intended as retaliation by the federal government for his frequent complaints about prison conditions, they said.
Judge Tanya Chutkan of the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled on Wednesday that Mr. Purkey’s execution must be delayed until the court could determine whether he was fit to be executed.
In a separate decision, Judge Chutkan also ruled on Wednesday that the lethal injection protocol required additional litigation to determine whether it violated several federal statutes and the inmates’ constitutional rights. She cited the potential for “irreparable harm” if the inmates were put to death before their claims could be resolved by the court.
The government filed an immediate appeal in both cases. The Supreme Court, which overturned a similar ruling from Judge Chutkan about the single-drug protocol in Mr. Lee’s case earlier this week, vacated both stays early Thursday morning in a 5-4 decision.
The liberal justices dissented. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, wrote that continuing with Mr. Purkey’s execution, “despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries.”
In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, reiterated questions about the effectiveness of the death penalty as a form of deterrence and retribution.
“A modern system of criminal justice must be reasonably accurate, fair, humane, and timely. Our recent experience with the federal government’s resumption of executions adds to the mounting body of evidence that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with those values,” he wrote. “I remain convinced of the importance of reconsidering the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”
A federal appeals court panel had issued a stay in Mr. Purkey’s case that remained in effect until the day before his death. In that proceeding, Mr. Purkey claimed that his legal counsel failed to adequately defend him at trial and during his habeas proceedings, but the government argued that federal law barred him from raising the issue so late in his case.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that his claims deserved another look by the court before he was executed. The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
The coronavirus pandemic also complicated Mr. Purkey’s case. Rev. Dale Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest and his spiritual adviser, said he could not attend Mr. Purkey’s execution without exposing himself to the virus. The priest, who goes by the name of Seigen, had developed a relationship with Mr. Purkey over more than a decade. But he said his history of bronchitis and pleurisy, lung-related illnesses, left him at greater risk to the coronavirus.
Mr. Hartkemeyer sued the Justice Department, joined by a spiritual adviser for Mr. Honken. They argued that by forcing them to choose between their religious duties and health, the government violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law prohibits the government from burdening an individual’s exercise of religion.
A federal judge in Indiana rejected the lawsuit Tuesday.
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