A federal judge this morning halted the execution of a Kansas man convicted of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old Kansas girl in 1998.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, was scheduled to be executed today. But U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., granted a preliminary injunction after his lawyers argued that Purkey is mentally unfit to be put to death because he has dementia and a documented history of mental illness, doesn’t understand that his execution is punishment for his capital crime, and can’t effectively communicate with his legal counsel.
In a landmark decision in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford vs. Wainwright that the Constitution prohibits putting to death a prisoner who is insane and not aware of his impending execution and the reasons for it.
Purkey admitted to abducting Jennifer Long as she was walking home from high school, raping and murdering her in his Lansing, Kansas, home and then dismembering her body. A federal jury convicted him in 2003 of kidnapping resulting in a child’s death and he was sentenced to death. His execution was originally set for December 13, 2019, but legal challenges have delayed it.
Purkey was to be executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death on Tuesday. Lee, a member of a white supremacist group who was convicted of killing an Arkansas family of three, was the first of four men sentenced to death after the Trump administration announced last year that it would resume federal executions.
The four also include Keith Dwayne Nelson, 45, who admitted to the 2001 abduction of Pamela Butler while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas City, Kansas, home, then raping her and strangling her with a wire. Her body was found in a wooded area in Grain Valley, Missouri.
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, only three federal executions have taken place, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. One of them was of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for his role in the 1995 terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
After a botched state execution in Oklahoma in 2014, President Barack Obama ordered a review of how the death penalty is applied in the U.S.
Judge Chutkan didn’t rule on Purkey’s competence but rather said the court needed time to evaluate his claims. The Justice Department immediately appealed Chutkan’s ruling.