A judge has halted the execution of a man said to be suffering from dementia.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, had been set to die by lethal injection in the US Government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus.
He was convicted of a gruesome 1998 kidnapping and killing and was scheduled for execution on Wednesday at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
It is the same place where Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death Tuesday after his own 11th-hour legal bids failed.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington DC imposed two injunctions on Wednesday, prohibiting the Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with Purkey’s execution.
The Justice Department filed immediate appeals in both cases.
A separate temporary stay was already in place from the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The early morning legal wrangling suggests a volley of litigation will continue in the hours ahead of Purkey’s scheduled execution, similar to what happened this week when the US Government executed Lee following a ruling from the Supreme Court.
One of the injunctions imposed on Wednesday halts not only Purkey’s execution but another scheduled for Friday and one in August.
Lee, who was convicted of killing an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation, was the first of four condemned men scheduled to die in July and August despite the coronavirus pandemic raging inside and outside prisons.
Purkey, of Lansing, Kansas, would be the second but his lawyers are still expected to press for a ruling from the Supreme Court on his competency.
“This competency issue is a very strong issue on paper,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, said.
“The Supreme Court has halted executions on this issue in the past.
“At a minimum, the question of whether Purkey dies is going to go down to the last minute.”
Ms Chutkan did not rule on whether Purkey is competent but said the court needs to evaluate the claim.
Lee’s execution went forward a day late.
It was scheduled for 4pm on Monday but the Supreme Court only gave the green light in a narrow five to four ruling early on Tuesday.
The issue of Purkey’s mental health arose in the run-up to his 2003 trial and when, after the verdict, jurors had to decide whether he should be put to death in the killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Kansas City, Missouri.
Prosecutors said he raped and stabbed her, dismembered her with a chainsaw, burned her, then dumped her ashes 200 miles away in a septic pond in Kansas.
Purkey was separately convicted and sentenced to life in the beating death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.
But the legal questions of whether he was mentally fit to stand trial or to be sentenced to die are different from the question of whether he is mentally fit enough now, in the hours before his scheduled execution, to be put to death.
Purkey’s lawyers argue he clearly is not, saying in recent filings that he suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
“He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row,” one of this lawyers, Rebecca Woodman, said.
“But as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the Government plans to execute him.”
In a landmark 1986 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled the Constitution prohibits putting someone to death who lacks a reasonable understanding of why they are being executed.