For the second time this week, D.C.-area federal Judge Tanya Chutkan has ordered a halt to the Trump administration’s plans to execute a death row inmate. Following the Supreme Court eventually clearing the way for the Trump administration’s execution of another murderer earlier in the week, whose execution Chutkan had also initially blocked, the Trump administration is now seeking to execute 68-year-old Wesley Ira Purkey. He was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a teenage girl in the late 1990’s, but he now suffers from dementia and, according to his legal team, can no longer understand his present circumstances. On Wednesday, Chutkan granted a preliminary injunction blocking the planned execution, although the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could again overrule that order and allow the execution to proceed.
The Trump administration has already appealed Chuktan’s latest ruling, and the case could reach the Supreme Court within hours. Chutkan’s ruling reads, in part:
‘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.’
The execution that the Supreme Court recently cleared the way for prior to Purkey’s case was the first execution carried out by the federal government in about 17 years. Executions had been informally halted amidst a review of the death penalty process that had been started during the Obama administration. At no point during the Obama administration did a single federal execution take place.
In this case, Purkey’s attorney Rebecca Woodman indicates that she needs a chance to present the evidence of Purkey’s mental state. She commented:
‘Wes Purkey is a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Though he has long accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him. 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.’
The case highlights some of the problems with the death penalty that have led to some advocacy for the complete abolition of the practice.