A federal judge in Washington has issued a preliminary injunction halting the planned execution Wednesday of the second person scheduled to die this week after the federal government resumed carrying out death sentences.
Lawyers for 68-year-old Wesley Ira Purkey argued he is currently incompetent to be executed because he does not understand it is punishment for his capital crime, that he has a history of mental illness, and that dementia has caused his mental health to decline.
District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan said in her ruling that Purkey’s defense has “made a substantial showing of incompetence,” and that he is therefore “entitled to an opportunity to be heard, including a fair hearing.”
In order to ensure such a hearing can take place, she ordered the government may not go through with the execution at this time.
Purkey was sentenced to death for killing and dismembering a teenager in the state of Missouri in 1998. He also pleaded guilty to the later killing of an 80-year-old woman.
Wednesday’s injunction comes a day after Daniel Lewis Lee became the first person the federal government executed since 2003.
A Supreme Court ruling early Tuesday cleared the way for the execution of four people, and hours later Lee was put to death with a dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital at a federal prison in Indiana.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Lee “finally faced the justice he deserved. The American people have made the considered choice to permit capital punishment for the most egregious federal crimes, and justice was done today in implementing the sentence for Lee’s horrific offenses.”
Lee was originally due to be executed Monday, but hours before that happened a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on the grounds that courts should have more time to review whether the method of execution violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Lawyers for the four men scheduled to die argued that pentobarbital could cause a type of respiratory distress with the sensation of drowning or suffocating.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority rejected that argument, saying the drug has been adopted by individual states that carry out their own executions and that more than 100 people have been put to death that way “without incident.”
“The Government has produced competing expert testimony of its own, indicating that any pulmonary edema occurs only after the prisoner has died or been rendered fully insensate,” the majority wrote. “The plaintiffs in this case have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a Federal Court.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan, said in a dissenting opinion that the majority had accepted the government’s “artificial claim of urgency” and rushed the review process.
“Today’s decision illustrates just how grave the consequences of such accelerated decision making can be,” Kagan said. “The Court forever deprives respondents of their ability to press a constitutional challenge to their lethal injections and prevents lower courts from reviewing that challenge.”
Justice Stephen Breyer, also joined by Ginsburg, suggested in his dissent that the court may need to examine the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.
The next federal inmate scheduled for execution is Dustin Lee Honken, who is set to be put to death Friday. The execution of the fourth inmate involved in the legal challenges, Keith Dwayne Nelson, is scheduled for August 28.
Before Tuesday, the federal government had executed three people since reinstating the death penalty in 1988.