Federal Judge Blocks Execution of Mentally Ill Man

The injunction for Wesley Purkey, a 68-year-old who suffers from dementia, comes after the federal government resumed carrying out capital punishment this week.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., issued a preliminary injunction on Wednesday blocking the government from executing Wesley Purkey by lethal injection after multiple expert evaluations said Purkey’s Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, schizophrenia and brain damage mean he is not fit for the government to proceed with the execution. 

Purkey, a federal death row inmate, was scheduled to be one of the first inmates executed after the Supreme Court refused to block federal executions last month. Since the decision, the government has rushed to schedule executions; multiple were scheduled for July and one for August.

The federal government executed Daniel Lewis Lee by lethal injection on Tuesday, making him the first person to be federally executed in the United States in nearly two decades

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan explained in granting Purkey’s reprieve that, based on medical experts’ opinions, due to his documented history of mental illness — including paranoia and delusions since childhood ― and his cognitive decline due to dementia, Purkey does not understand that the execution is for his crime and was unable to work fully with his legal team. 

Purkey was convicted of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl and murdering an 80-year-old woman in 1998. 

His attorney, Rebecca Woodman, said in a statement that Purkey has “long accepted responsibility for his crime,” but does not have a rational understanding of why the government was executing him. 

“Wes Purkey is a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” Woodman said. “By staying Wes’s execution, the court’s action signals the importance of allowing him to present the extensive, available medical evidence demonstrating his incompetency to be executed.”

Previously, the ACLU sued to block Purkey’s execution because the coronavirus pandemic put the victim’s families and witnesses at risk when attending the execution.

Similar reasoning was involved in making the decision to execute Lee earlier this week. His victim’s family did not want to put themselves at risk of contracting the virus while attending the execution and were opposed to it being carried out in the middle of a pandemic. But despite that, and a last-minute attempted appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that the Justice Department could proceed.

A third death row inmate — Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted of killing five people — was also scheduled to be executed on Friday, but Chutkan’s ruling blocked it as well.