WASHINGTON — Lawyers for a federal death row inmate convicted of rape and murder have asked a federal judge to halt his scheduled execution next month because the prisoner has Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
Wesley Ira Purkey’s lawsuit was filed late Tuesday in Washington. His execution is scheduled for Dec. 13.
Purkey is among five men whose executions were set by Attorney General William Barr in July, ending an unofficial decade-long moratorium on federal executions. A judge has temporarily halted the executions after some of the chosen inmates challenged the new execution procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.
The Justice Department is appealing, and Barr has said he would take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Purkey’s lawsuit argues he is not mentally competent enough to be executed. His lawyers say the 67-year-old’s condition is so far progressed that he doesn’t understand why he would face the death penalty.
“Wesley Purkey lacks a rational understanding of the purpose of his execution and cannot communicate rationally with counsel,” they wrote in court papers. They cite debilitating symptoms from mental illness, but also severe trauma that began in childhood, including witnessing abuse and being abused by his parents.
Purkey, who’s from Kansas, was convicted of raping and killing 16-year-old Jennifer Long before dismembering, burning and dumping her body in a septic pond in 2003.
The attorney general unexpectedly announced in July that the government would resume executions next month. In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama had directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
Barr proclaimed the review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume, and he approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital.
This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
But even as the federal government paused executions, some federal defendants over the years were still sentenced to death.
In New York, Ronell Wilson was sentenced to death after he was convicted of killing two undercover New York City police detectives in 2003, in an illegal gun sting gone awry on Staten Island. The officers were shot point-blank in the backs of their heads.
But a federal judge in 2016 said Wilson could not be put to death because he met the legal standard to be considered intellectually disabled. His sentence was vacated and he was given life in prison.