“There was no reason for this administration to restart federal executions now … except to distract from its many failings, particularly its failure to keep people safe during this pandemic.”
Over the span of five days this month, the Trump administration executed three incarcerated individuals, matching the number of federal executions that had taken place in the previous 57 years and raising questions about political motivations and potential violations of constitutional rights.
The executions of Daniel Lewis Lee, Wesley Purkey, and Dustin Honken took place between July 13 and July 17, alarming legal experts and civil rights advocates who said it was “reckless” that the government would resume capital punishment during a global pandemic after a nearly two-decades-long pause.
“For the Trump administration to choose to restart federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, and at this moment when the country is obviously experiencing so much widespread sickness and suffering—it really is unfathomable,” said Olivia Ensign, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, which fought to stop the executions. “This is the moment for our country to consider what our priorities are, and it does not seem that after a 17-year hiatus that this should be a priority, particularly because of what is happening in this country right now.”
The Trump administration, which first announced last summer that it would resume federal executions, felt otherwise. The Department of Justice argued that the suspects’ victims deserved justice, even as one of those victims’ families vocally opposed the DOJ’s actions.
A Closer Look at One Man’s Case
Legal experts and mental health advocates were particularly troubled by the execution of 68-year-old Purkey, given the death row inmate’s history of mental illness and prior Supreme Court precedent. The Court has previously ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are “insane,” meaning they are unable to understand the reason for their execution.
One of Purkey’s attorneys, Rebecca Woodman, described him as “a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.” Purkey’s legal team also said he was the subject of sexual and emotional abuse as a child, and at 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and psychosis.
“He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row, but as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him,” Woodman said in a statement last year.
Purkey was convicted in 2003 and later sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long. He also killed Mary Ruth Bales, an 80-year-old woman, according to state court records. The teenage victim’s family supported Purkey’s execution, with Long’s father telling reporters that Purkey “needed to take his last breath.”
Purkey’s lawyers believed otherwise, arguing his mental illness rendered him unable to grasp what was happening to him.
“He believes his execution is part of a large-scale conspiracy against him by the federal government in retaliation for his frequent challenges to prison conditions, and he believes his own lawyers are working against him within this conspiracy,” Woodman said.
A coalition of mental health organizations wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asking him to commute Purkey’s execution because it would “violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on executing people who are not competent to understand the reason for their execution.”
Their effort proved unsuccessful. The Department of Justice claimed Purkey understood the reasoning for his execution, and the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the execution could move forward, lifting a lower court’s injunction.
Ron Honberg, the former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at National Alliance on Mental Illness (which opposed the execution), was “shocked” by the court’s ruling and said executing Purkey despite his mental illness raised concerns about “the fairness, and even in some cases, the constitutionality of the death penalty.”
“We’re talking about death here,” Honberg told COURIER. “We’re talking about the most extreme punishment and no matter how one feels about the death penalty—whether somebody supports it or does not support it—I think there’s pretty broad agreement that it should be imposed only in the most egregious circumstances where there are not mitigating circumstances.”
Though the conservative-leaning Supreme Court allowed Purkey’s execution to move forward, it wasn’t without criticism from the court’s liberal bloc.
“Proceeding with Purkey’s execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.
An Epidemic of Mental Illness
According to Honberg, Purkey’s execution is also a microcosm of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system, which prioritizes punishment of individuals with mental health problems over treatment.
“When you look at the numbers of people with mental illnesses who are incarcerated in this country, whether in jails or in prisons, they’re astronomical,” he said. “But most of those are people who have been charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or non-violent felonies—many of whom were in desperate need of treatment before they committed the acts that led to their incarceration but didn’t get the treatment they needed.”
An estimated 37% of federal and state prisoners and 44% of jail inmates have been told in the past by a mental health professional that they had a mental disorder, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Justice. The problem is so severe that in some states and cities, prisons and jails are actually the largest provider of mental health services.
Honberg said the failure to properly fund mental health programs in the U.S. is partially responsible for those numbers.
Until then, people with mental illnesses will continue to make up a disproportionate percentage of not only inmates, but also those who wind up executed. In 2019, at least 19 of the 22 prisoners who were executed by state governments demonstrated significant evidence of mental illness; evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center
‘A Flexing of Political Muscle’
The government’s ruthless push to execute Purkey alarmed Ensign, the ACLU staff attorney, who said it sets an “incredibly dangerous precedent,” in part because he was executed while a separate appeal request was still pending.
“Mr. Purkey was executed while litigation around his competence and ability to understand the reason for his execution was still ongoing,” she said. “He never had a full hearing or decision on the merits of his claim that he was incompetent due to Alzheimer’s, to schizophrenia, to brain damage.”
The execution also came just hours after his legal team learned that the government withheld scientific evidence documenting his “advanced dementia,” a revelation that sparked outrage from Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist.
“Withholding evidence in a death penalty case is among the most serious forms of attorney misconduct and all lawyers involved in this incident should be investigated and, if appropriate, held in contempt as well as sanctioned,” Prejean said in a statement. “The deeply flawed execution process the DOJ is overseeing is not about justice, nor about the victims’ families. It is a flexing of political muscle by an administration which is an habitual offender when it comes to the abuse of power.”
Another point of controversy was that the government executed Purkey and Lee after the legal warrants for their executions expired, a violation of federal regulations. According to federal law, if an execution date passes, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons must set a new date after the injunction is lifted.
“At 11:59 p.m. on July 15, the execution warrant for Mr. Purkey expired,” Woodman, his attorney, said in a statement. “Under federal law, this should have precluded any execution without sufficient notice of a new date and time for the execution.”
Instead, the Bureau of Prisons rushed ahead with the execution, a decision that Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called “extremely disturbing.”
“To say to somebody who is in the execution chamber, ‘good morning, we’re going to execute you now,’ is not acceptable legal notice,” Dunham told the Wichita Eagle, adding that due process meant Purkey and his attorneys should have been given time to respond.
“It’s behavior we haven’t seen before from any administration, Republican or Democratic,” Dunham said.
Following Purkey’s death, Woodman did not mince words about the Trump administration’s ruthless push to execute her client. “Any doubts remaining about this Administration’s disregard for the rule of law, for the rights of its citizens, and for basic human decency have been laid to rest,” she said. “Wes Purkey’s execution should shock the conscience of anyone who cares about justice and the rule of law.”
Why the rush to execute? Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, has one theory: “There was no reason for this administration to restart federal executions now—after a nearly two-decade hiatus, during the worst public health crisis of our lifetime—except to distract from its many failings, particularly its failure to keep people safe during this pandemic,” Stubbs said in a statement.
Honberg also wondered if the executions were politically motivated and whether “politics may have prevented a thorough and fair investigation of all the evidence.” He stopped short, however, of tying it to the pandemic in any way.
‘They Treated Us As If We Didn’t Exist’
The timing of the executions also angered family members of the victims of Daniel Lee, the convicted murderer who was executed two days before Purkey. Many of the victims’ relatives opposed his execution and expressed frustration over its timing.
“We sued to get the execution postponed because of the pandemic, and the government called our family’s fears ‘frivolous,’” Monica Veillette, the niece and cousin of Lee’s murder victims Nancy Mueller and Sarah Powell, told the Marshall Project. “It made me cry more than anything thus far, to be called frivolous by the people who had said they were doing this for us. It felt so cruel.”
Veillette said that once it became clear that the government would execute Lee over their objections, she and her family had to make the “agonizing” decision of whether to attend the execution.
“We wanted to be present to say, ‘This is not being done in Sarah and Nancy’s name,’ and to let that be the final moment in their story,” she said. “But what if I went and I was asymptomatic and hugged my grandma, because who would not be able to hug their grandma in that situation, and then my grandma gets sick?”
Earlene Peterson, another family member and a Trump supporter, was similarly furious with the administration’s decision to execute Lee.
“They say they’re doing it for us but they’re liars, lying through their teeth. They treated us as if we didn’t exist,” she told the Marshall Project. “I’m disappointed the president didn’t contact me, since I am a loyal voter for him. I feel that Trump has done a good job, and I’m hoping and praying he didn’t use this politically. I don’t want to believe that. I really feel in my heart the government let me down.”
Neither Veillette nor Peterson went to the execution, a decision that may have proven wise after the revelation that a Bureau of Prisons staff member involved in preparations for Lee’s execution tested positive for COVID-19. The Bureau of Prisons did not share this information publicly until July 12, just one day before Lee was executed.
The implications of what Lee’s attorneys described as the government’s “execute-at-any-cost approach” could reverberate for years to come. In addition to concerns over due process, legal experts have called into question the use of the federal government’s new lethal injection protocol that at least one judge ruled was “very likely to cause extreme pain and needless suffering” and could cause the men to feel like they were drowning, a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Ensign also said the death penalty is “dehumanizing,” “racist,” and “arbitrary,” arguing there’s little consistency in what kind of offenders are executed.
“We’re not necessarily talking about the worst of the worst crimes being the one that received death sentences in this country,” Ensign said. Instead, it often depends on the quality of the suspect’s attorney, the jurisdiction of the case, and the suspect’s race and wealth level. Those “all can impact whether you receive a death sentence and are executed,” she added.
She pointed to the growing state-level movement to abolish the death penalty as evidence that there’s a increasing recognition that “capital punishment has no place in 2020.” Twenty-two states have abolished the death penalty, three have instituted a moratorium on its use, and nine more have declined to use it in at least a decade.
This shift toward eradicating the death penalty comes as public support for it has fallen in recent decades. In 1994, 80% of Americans supported capital punishment for people convicted of murder, according to a Gallup survey. By 2019, that number had fallen to 56%, with a majority of Americans saying for the first time that they preferred life sentences (60%) to the death penalty (34%).
The Trump administration, however, appears committed to revitalizing capital punishment and remains undeterred by the recent backlash. They plan to execute another federal inmate on Aug. 28.
As for Purkey, before he was executed, he apologized to Long’s family and his own daughter, saying he “deeply” regretted the pain he caused to all of them. According to a reporter who was present, Purkey used his final words to question the validity of the proceedings.
“This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever,” he said. “Thank you.”