Terre Haute, Indiana — The Supreme Court early Thursday cleared the way for a second federal execution this week. The vote to allow the execution of Wesley Ira Purkey to go forward was 5-4, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “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.” She was joined by fellow liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
But a flurry of legal maneuvering then unfolded overnight. A lower court put an emergency hold on the execution as it weighed the issues in the case for an hour, but ultimately denied hearing Purkey’s claim. His execution had been slated for Wednesday evening at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. The latest denial was then appealed to a circuit court.
Purkey was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a 16-year-old girl before dismembering, burning and then dumping the teen’s body in a septic pond. He was also convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio.
On Tuesday, Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death at the facility after his eleventh-hour legal bids failed. It was the first federal execution after a 17-year hiatus.
Lawyers for the 68-year-old Purkey argued that he has dementia and is unfit to be executed. They said his condition has deteriorated so severely that he didn’t understand why he was being executed. They also said that if Purkey’s execution didn’t take place Wednesday, the government would need to set a new date. But government lawyers said there was no obstacle to going through with the execution Thursday if the Supreme Court lifted the injunctions that had held up his execution.
The issue of Purkey’s mental health arose in the run-up to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the killing of Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri. Prosecutors said he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her and dumped her ashes 200 miles away in a septic pond in Kansas. Purkey was separately convicted and sentenced to life in the beating death of Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.
Lee was convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
His execution came over the objection of the victims’ relatives and following days of legal wrangling and delays.
Lee, 47, of Yukon, Oklahoma, professed his innocence just before he was executed at the federal prison in Terre Haute.
“I didn’t do it,” Lee said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I’m not a murderer.”
His final words were: “You’re killing an innocent man.”
The decision to move forward with the execution — the first by the Bureau of Prisons since 2003 — drew scrutiny from civil rights groups and relatives of Lee’s victims, who had sued to try to halt it, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has killed more than 135,000 people in the United States and is ravaging prisons nationwide.
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