Referring to the resumption of federal executions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as "super-spreader events," lawyers for one of three inmates slated to die later this month argued for a delay Thursday, claiming that the deadly virus would endanger the life of his spiritual adviser who would be attending.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Buddhist priest who has ministered to condemned inmate Wesley Purkey, argues that the pandemic would risk the health of Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer who is "religiously obligated" to attend Purkey's July 15 execution.
Purkey’s execution is the second of three that the government has scheduled in quick succession later this month, marking a resumption of the federal death penalty following a 17-year hiatus.
“The fact that the federal government has scheduled these executions now, during a pandemic when COVID-19 cases are surging around the country, is appalling,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Nine of the top 10 hot spots for COVID-19 are in prisons. Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building. We haven’t had a federal execution in 17 years: There is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan.”
Re-opening death chamber: Justice Department resumes capital punishment after nearly two decades, orders executions of five inmates
Justice asserts authority: DOJ says it has authority to carry out federal executions regardless of state rules
This week, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the Trump administration to resume federal executions when justices denied a challenge from four convicted murderers, including Purkey, who argued that federal executions must adhere to the specific protocols used by the states where each man was sentenced, including the method of execution.
Attorney General William Barr announced last year that the federal government would conduct its first executions since 2003 using the single drug pentobarbital. The drug is used in many but not all states.
Federal District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that the executions would conflict with provisions of a 1994 federal law, under which the federal government is supposed to follow protocols used by the states in which the prisoners were sentenced. That ruling was upheld by a three-judge federal appeals court panel.
Lawyers for Purkey convicted in the 1998 kidnapping, rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl, raised the issue of the virus as the federal Bureau of Prisons has struggled to control its spread. So far, 90 inmates and one staffer have died, while 1,563 inmates and 164 staffers are infected.
At the prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the federal death chamber is housed, one inmate has died and five inmates were infected.
Purkey's lawyers asserted that Rev. Hartkemeyer, 68, has lung-related illnesses that "make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19."
The lawsuit claims that the timing of the execution, "forcing Rev. Hartkemeyer to risk his health and life to perform his religious duties as Purkey’s priest," violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Contributing: Richard Wolf