Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Zen priest of the Sanshin Zen Community based in Bloomington, Indiana, has joined other clergy in a legal bid to halt federal executions planned for this summer. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit on behalf Rev. Hartkemeyer, asserting that he is being forced to choose between forgoing his religious responsibility to Purkey and putting his own life at risk by traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hartkemeyer, who is 68 and has been Purkey’s priest on death row for the past 10 years, says his lung condition makes him vulnerable to developing complications should he contract the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
The United States Justice Department had scheduled the execution of Westley Purkey for 15 July, and in doing so had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Hartkemeyer has said.
Purkey’s execution, along with two others scheduled for this week, were blocked early yesterday, just hours before the first was scheduled to take place. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said that, along with unresolved legal issues, “the public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process.” (CBS News)
“Each execution will require the travel, movement, and congregation of hundreds of individuals, including the families of the victims and the death row prisoners, scores of correctional officers, members of local and national media, as well as large numbers of witnesses and legal counsel from around the country,” Hartkemeyer said. (Bloomberg Law)
While there have been no federal executions since 2003, US Attorney General William P. Barr made plans last year to resume carrying out lethal injections with the drug pentobarbital. The scheduled executions were delayed due to court challenges, but Barr made an announcement last month that four executions would be carried out this summer.
“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,” the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, Cassandra Stubbs, said in a news release. “Nine of the top 10 hotspots 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.” (New York Daily News)
All four death row inmates were convicted of murdering children, including Purkey, who was found guilty of raping and murdering 16-year-old Jennifer Long, as well as murdering 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales. Inmate Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled to be executed two days before Purke at the same federal high-security prison in Terre Haute.
Before the delay in the executions, Barr expressed confidence that they would be carried out legally. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws,” he said. “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes and to the families left behind to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.” (The Washington Post)
Some of the victims’ families have spoken out against these plans, however. Earlene Branch Peterson, Kimma Gurel, and Monica Veillette—all relatives of Nancy Mueller, one of Lee’s victims—have also filed court papers stating that there is no reason to follow through with the executions during a global pandemic.
On 10 July, a coalition of mental health organizations wrote to Barr urging him to halt Purkey’s execution because of his diagnoses of schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“In expressing our position, we do not trivialize in any way the magnitude of Purkey’s crime or the suffering of his victim and her family,” the groups wrote in the letter. “However, we are gravely concerned that issues concerning Purkey’s competence to be executed have not been adequately considered by the US or any court of law.” (The Washington Times)
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Terre Haute prison where both Purkey and Lee are to be executed, with one inmate dying from the fatal virus.
“I am bound by my religious duty to be present at his execution, where—on the threshold of death, and at his ultimate moment of crisis—he will suffer the most dire distress,” Hartkemeyer wrote in a sworn declaration to the court. (New York Daily News)
Judge blocks federal executions hours before scheduled lethal injection in Indiana (CBS News)
Zen Buddhist priest files lawsuit to delay execution of Indiana inmate (New York Daily News)
Buddhist Priest Seeks to Halt Federal Execution During Pandemic (Bloomberg Law)
A coalition of mental health organizations urge DOJ to stop execution of convicted child killer (The Washington Times)
Victims’ relatives seek to delay federal execution, saying pandemic poses ‘grave risk’ if they attend (The Washington Post)