Michael Conroy / AP
The Supreme Court early Thursday denied appeals to halt the execution of Wesley Purkey and clear the way for his death by lethal injection. It would be the second federal execution since they resumed this week after a 17-year hiatus.
Purkey, who is in the death row in the US criminal justice area, Indre, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 16-year-old girl in 1998.
His lawyers claimed that Purkey, 68, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and did not understand why he was facing the death penalty. Purkey’s religious adviser has also appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that his religious obligation to be present at the execution risks exposing him to COVID-19.
The appeals were rejected in two 5-4 decisions early on Thursday, where the liberal justices disagreed.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “continuing Purkey’s execution now, despite the serious questions and actual discoveries about his mental competence, casts a veil of constitutional doubt on the most irreversible damage.” She was joined by judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
“Purkey is mentally incompetent to be executed and has at least the right to a hearing to evaluate his mental competence before the government continues with its execution,” Sotomayor wrote.
It was not immediately clear when Purkey, who was originally scheduled to be executed on Wednesday night, would receive the lethal injection.
The Supreme Court’s decision came after U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia imposed two injunctions against Purkey’s execution, citing arguments that he is not competent to be executed.
A court of appeal upheld one of the injunctions late on Wednesday, which was then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Chutkan is the same judge who tried to block Tuesday’s execution of 47-year-old Daniel Lee, who became the first federal prisoner killed since 2003.
Lee was convicted in the 1996 murders of a married couple and their 8-year-old daughter.
Lee’s last words were, “You’re killing an innocent man.”
Another prisoner, Dustin Lee Honken, who shot and killed five people, is scheduled to be executed on Friday. Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped, raped and strangled a ten-year-old girl, will be executed on August 28.
President Obama ordered a review of federal executions in 2014 after an execution by the state of Oklahoma resulted in a prisoner taking more than an hour to die.
In July last year, the Trump administration announced that the investigation was complete and executions could be resumed, but a series of court challenges delayed their resumption.