Purkey was originally scheduled to be executed by injection on Wednesday afternoon in Terre Haute, Ind. It wasn’t immediately clear when his execution would proceed.
Purkey’s execution is one of three the Justice Department scheduled for this week as it sought to resume carrying out federal death sentences for the first time since 2003. That effort has given way to a tangle of court battles between the federal government and those attempting to stop or delay the executions, including death-row inmates, their spiritual advisers and some victims’ relatives.
Purkey’s scheduled execution has been no exception. On Wednesday morning, a federal judge blocked his execution on two fronts — in a case he brought alone and another in which he joined with other death-row inmates. His execution had also been stayed by an appeals court in another case.
The Justice Department appealed in all three cases. Purkey’s spiritual adviser also went to court seeking to postpone the execution, arguing he could be at risk ministering to him in prison because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The order on Wednesday blocking only Purkey’s execution was written by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia, who said Purkey’s arguments that he is not competent to be executed require “a fair hearing.”
The Justice Department quickly moved to appeal, as it did in a case in which Chutkan blocked Purkey’s execution and two others so the death-row inmates’ challenges to the government’s execution protocol could continue.
Chutkan has stood between the Justice Department and its plans for capital punishment before, blocking the execution schedule it laid out last year so death-row inmates could proceed with their challenges to its new lethal-injection protocol. An appeals court eventually ruled against those inmates in the case and said the executions could proceed.
With the Supreme Court’s responses still looming, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Wednesday night rejected the government’s request to jettison Chutkan’s order blocking just Purkey’s execution.
On Monday, hours before the department had scheduled its first federal execution in 17 years, Chutkan blocked it and other planned executions, saying it was necessary so other legal challenges mounted by the inmates could proceed in court.
The Justice Department took issue with Chutkan’s order in that case, writing in a court filing that her “last-minute, day-of-execution injunction is inappropriate” and admonishing her for the timing and substance of her decision.
Chutkan’s order Monday blocked the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, along with Purkey’s and the Friday execution set for Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted of killing five people in 2004. A fourth execution, in August, was also blocked.
The Supreme Court sided with the government, issuing an unsigned 5-to-4 order shortly after 2 a.m. Tuesday saying the executions could proceed.
Hours later, the Justice Department executed Lee, who was convicted of murder in 1999 for his role in killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl. His execution was opposed by some of the victims’ relatives, including the girl’s grandmother, and they fought against it being scheduled during the pandemic.
In her order Wednesday in Purkey’s case, Chutkan nodded to the agency’s criticism of her timing with the earlier order, writing that her “sole responsibility” is to address claims brought by inmates with execution dates “announced by the government only one month before they were to occur.”
“The speed with which the government seeks to carry out these executions, and the Supreme Court’s prioritization of that pace over additional legal process, makes it considerably more likely that injunctions may issue at the last minute, despite the efforts of Plaintiffs’ counsel to raise, and the court to adjudicate, the claims in a timely fashion,” she wrote.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on her order beyond its filings.
Rebecca Woodman, an attorney for Purkey, praised the order, describing him as a “severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.” Woodman said Purkey took responsibility for the crime but no longer comprehends why the government plans to execute him.
In another case, an appeals court had stayed Purkey’s execution after he argued he was improperly served by his counsel in the past.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit rejected his case but granted “a brief stay to permit the orderly conclusion of the proceedings,” saying Purkey had still made points worth exploring. Its decision, issued this month, temporarily blocked his Wednesday execution date “pending the completion of proceedings” in the appeals court.
The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to vacate that stay, saying the panel had granted it despite Purkey’s failure to show he could succeed in pressing his case. Purkey’s attorneys objected, saying that “absent a stay, Mr. Purkey will be executed without any court ever having heard his substantial claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.”
The Supreme Court on Wednesday afternoon vacated the stay. The order was unsigned, but it came from the court’s five conservative justices; the four liberal justices all said they would have let the stay stand.
Another case seeking to stop the execution was filed by the Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a 68-year-old Buddhist priest and spiritual adviser to Purkey. Joined by Mark O’Keefe, a Roman Catholic priest and Honken’s spiritual adviser, Hartkemeyer has argued against the lethal injection occurring during the pandemic, saying it puts him at risk.
Hartkemeyer wrote in court filings that he was left to “decide whether to risk his own life to exercise his religious obligations to be present.” The Justice Department has argued Hartkemeyer and O’Keefe would be provided safety measures, including protective equipment.
The department said that while Hartkemeyer is Purkey’s religious adviser, he “is nonetheless a bystander” in the government’s efforts to carry out a sentence and “cannot halt that process merely because of the ‘indirect burden’ that the schedule imposes on his decision whether to attend the execution.”
After losing in the lower courts, they appealed to the Supreme Court on Wednesday to stay the execution.
Meagan Flynn also contributed to this report.