Judge halts federal execution of man over claim he suffers from dementia

By Associated Press

A judge on Wednesday halted the execution of a man said to be suffering from dementia, who had been set to die by lethal injection in the federal government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus.

Wesley Ira Purkey, convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing, was scheduled for execution on Wednesday at the US penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death Tuesday after his own 11th-hour legal bids failed.

US district judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington imposed two injunctions on Wednesday prohibiting the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with Purkey’s execution.

The justice department filed immediate appeals in both cases. A separate temporary stay was already in place from the seventh US circuit court of appeals.

The early morning legal wrangling suggests a volley of litigation will continue in the hours ahead of Purkey’s scheduled execution, similar to what happened this week when the federal government executed Lee, following a ruling from the US supreme court.

Lee, who was convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation, was the first of four condemned men scheduled to die in July and August.

Purkey, 68, of Lansing, Kansas, would be the second, but his lawyers were still expected to press for a ruling from the supreme court on his competency.

“This competency issue is a very strong issue on paper,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The supreme court has halted executions on this issue in the past. At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies is going to go down to the last minute.”

Chutkan did not rule on whether Purkey is competent but said the court needs to evaluate the claim. She said that while the government may disagree with Purkey’s lawyers about his competency, there was no question he would suffer “irreparable harm” if he were put to death before his claims could be evaluated by the court.

Lee’s own execution went forward a day late. It was scheduled for 4pm Monday, but the supreme court only gave the green light in a narrow 5-4 ruling early on Tuesday.

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 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri.

Prosecutors alleged that he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her, then 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 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.

But the legal questions of whether he was mentally fit to stand trial or to be sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he is mentally fit enough now, in the hours before his scheduled execution, to be put to death.

Purkey’s lawyers argue he clearly is not, saying in recent filings that he suffers from advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

While various legal issues in Purkey’s case have been hashed, rehashed and settled by courts over nearly two decades, the issue of mental fitness for execution can only be addressed once a date is set, according to experts.