The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Department of Justice for resuming executions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a 68-year-old Buddhist monk who has a history of lung-related illnesses. He is one of the designated witnesses for the federal execution of Wesley Purkey, a Kansas man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on July 15. Designated witnesses are required to be present at executions, due to federal regulations.
Throughout the pandemic, Hartkemeyer has been careful to socially distance and not visit public places he used to; he fears that attending the execution to perform his religious duties would put him at heightened risk for contracting COVID-19, as social distancing measures would not be possible at the prison.
Forcing Hartkemeyer to risk his own health to perform his religious duties at Purkey’s execution is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act the lawsuit alleges.
“As Mr. Purkey’s priest for the last 11 years, I have a religious obligation to be present at his execution to ease his crossover from this life,” Hartkemeyer said in a statement. “I should not have to risk my health and life to perform my sacred priestly duties. We must ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice to enable the government to perpetuate a cycle of killing.”
For the first time in 17 years, the federal government has scheduled four executions, from July 13 to Aug. 28. The Supreme Court last month refused to block upcoming federal executions.
Purkey, who was convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in 1998 and murdering an 80-year-old woman, is among those scheduled to be executed later this month. The ACLU, however, is asking the court to postpone the execution until a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 is made available to the public.
“The fact that the federal government has scheduled these executions now, during a pandemic when COVID-19 cases are surging around the country, is appalling,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, in a statement. “Nine of the top 10 hotspots for COVID-19 are in prisons. Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building. We haven’t had a federal execution in 17 years: There is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan.”
“Haven’t enough people died?”
Tens of thousands of people in prison have tested positive for coronavirus across the U.S. At the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the federal death row is housed, several inmates have tested positive for the virus and at least one has died.
Hartkemeyer is not the only witness afraid of choosing between their health and their moral obligation to attend the execution.
Elizabeth Vartkessian, Purkey’s mitigation specialist of five years and another designated witness for his execution, says she faces a dreadful decision should the execution go forward in July.
Vartkessian is nine months pregnant and is fearful for not only her health but the health of her baby if she attends the execution.
“It doesn’t feel like a fair decision at this stage to have to weigh my own safety and the safety of my child against the duty that I feel to be present as a witness in the event that his execution goes forward,” she told HuffPost.
Vartkessian believes any federal executions should be scheduled for a time when the well-being of all witnesses, staff and others involved can be assured.
“Honestly, I can’t right now make that decision, and my hope is that I won’t have to make that decision because it really feels like an impossible choice. At this stage, I really don’t know what I would do,” she said.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, just one person has been executed in the U.S., Walter Barton in Missouri.
Hartkemeyer is not alone in voicing concerns over the safety of carrying out executions while coronavirus continues to spread across the country. Several people involved in the case of Daniel Lee, an Arkansas man convicted of killing a family of three, have said they worry that the risks of attending his execution, scheduled for July 13, are too great.
“If they owe us anything, it’s to keep us safe now by not pushing this execution through while people are still scrambling to access disinfectant spray and proper masks,” Monica Veillette, a relative of two of Lee’s victims, told The New York Times. “Haven’t enough people died?”
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