The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justice Dept. carries out second federal execution after another late-night, divided Supreme Court ruling

Wesley Ira Purkey in a 1998 photo after his arrest. He was executed by injection Thursday morning. (Jim Barcus/AP)

The Justice Department on Thursday carried out the second federal execution this week, following another set of Supreme Court orders issued in the dead of night saying the lethal injection could proceed. 

Federal officials in Indiana executed Wesley Purkey, 68. He was pronounced dead at 8:19 a.m., they said. Purkey was convicted in 2003 of raping and murdering 16-year-old Jennifer Long, and had also killed Mary Ruth Bales, an 80-year-old woman, court records show.

Asked if he wanted to make a statement before the lethal injection, Purkey apologized to both Long’s family and his daughter, saying he “deeply” regretted the pain he caused to all of them. His final words addressed his imminent execution.

“This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever,” he said, according to the pool report. “Thank you.”

Trump administration carries out first federal execution since 2003 after late-night Supreme Court intervention

Purkey’s death by injection came two days after federal authorities executed Daniel Lewis Lee, who was sentenced to death for his role in killing a family of three, at the same penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. 

Before this week, the last federal execution was in 2003. The Justice Department had pushed to resume carrying out federal death sentences since last year, adopting a new lethal-injection protocol and announcing plans to carry out a series of executions. The department has said it needs to carry out lawful sentences, which were sought and won during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The Justice Department’s plans have been blocked before by the courts, with a fusillade of legal battles unfolding between the federal government and death-row inmates, victims’ relatives and spiritual advisers.

Purkey’s execution, like Lee’s, was carried out following expansive legal battles that unfolded on multiple fronts before eventually arriving at the Supreme Court. In various cases, Purkey’s attorneys argued he was not competent to be executed and had poor counsel in the past; he joined with other death-row inmates challenging the new lethal-injection protocol; and his spiritual adviser asked to delay the execution, citing the coronavirus pandemic. 

Supreme Court clears the way for second federal execution this week

Purkey’s execution was first planned for Wednesday afternoon, but by that morning, it was blocked by three different orders from two courts. The Supreme Court jettisoned one of those orders on Wednesday afternoon, while two more remained pending.

In a burst of orders issued just after 2:45 a.m. early Thursday, the court ruled for the government in the remaining cases. It acted similarly around the same time early Tuesday, allowing Lee’s execution to proceed later that morning.

One injunction blocking Purkey’s execution — and the scheduled Friday lethal injection of Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted of killing five people — was vacated in an unsigned order. Another stay request from Purkey was denied, as was a stay request from his and Honken’s spiritual advisers, who said the novel coronavirus made it dangerous for them to minister; neither order was signed. 

In the fourth case, the court’s sharp divisions over capital punishment burst forth, much as they did two days earlier in Lee’s case.

Appeals court says first federal execution can proceed despite victims’ relatives opposing it during pandemic

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia blocked Purkey’s execution on Wednesday, saying his arguments that he was not competent to be executed necessitated “a fair hearing.” 

One of Purkey’s attorneys, Rebecca Woodman, has described him as “a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease” and said he does not understand “why the government plans to execute him.” The Justice Department, in its responses, said Purkey understands the reasoning for his execution and pushed against that claim. 

Early Thursday, the court vacated Chutkan’s injunction with a 5-to-4 order decided by the five conservative justices. The four liberal justices, much as they did in Lee’s case, wrote a pair of dissents

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a dissent repeating his call for the court to consider whether the death penalty itself is unconstitutional. 

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Breyer said the two cases this week raised questions of arbitrariness, delays inherent in the death penalty and legal procedure. He also wrote that the issues highlighted in federal and state cases suggest problems with “the punishment itself” rather than any particular prosecutor, defense attorney or jurisdiction. 

In another dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Ginsburg and Breyer, said Chutkan was not tasked with answering if Purkey could understand why he was being executed. Instead, Sotomayor said, Chutkan had to determine if Purkey met the burden of showing he warranted a competency hearing. Sotomayor wrote that Chutkan “correctly concluded” that he did. 

Sotomayor said she knows the government and relatives of Long have an interest in seeing Purkey punished, but the public and he also have their own interest in making sure his punishment is constitutional. 

She 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.”

While the high court’s orders were issued before 3 a.m., Purkey’s execution did not proceed for several hours because of another legal challenge.

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement that Purkey “was afforded every due process of law under our Constitution” and “has finally faced justice.”

Shortly before 8 a.m., the curtain shielding the execution chamber from view opened to show Purkey, his arms strapped down and an IV in his right arm, a media witness recounted in his pool report.

After Purkey’s final words, the lethal drug was injected and Purkey took several deep breaths. He eventually stopped and remained motionless for several minutes before his time of death was announced.

“This morning’s execution, following Danny Lee’s on Tuesday, marks a truly dark period for our country,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement.

Stubbs denounced what she called “a rushed and truncated review” and said “the courts abandoned the constitutional prohibition on executing people who lack rational understanding of the reason for their execution.”

Unlike Lee’s lethal injection, which some relatives of his victims opposed and denounced after it happened, a relative of Purkey’s victim spoke to reporters Thursday morning to say he long awaited the execution.

William Long, Jennifer Long’s father, told reporters after Purkey was pronounced dead that he had been “dreaming” of it for years. He decried the length of time it took for Purkey’s sentence to be carried out, saying “there’s monsters out there . . . they need to be put down like the dogs they are.”

“It has been a long time coming,” Long said of the execution, according to the pool report. “He needed to take his last breath. He took my daughter’s last breath. . . . There is no closure and there never will be because I won’t get my daughter back.”

Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.