The second of five federal prisoners slated for execution was killed in the early hours of Thursday, July 16.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, was originally scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening. The execution was delayed as a series of last-minute legal filings arguing that Purkey was not mentally competent enough to be executed.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote Thursday, let the execution proceed. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented and would have blocked the execution.
The execution was held at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Purkey was sentenced to death in January 2004. His case was handled by the federal court system as he had kidnapped Jennifer Long, 16, in Kansas City, Missouri, and murdered her in Kansas, crossing state lines. Purkey confessed to Long’s murder while he was awaiting trial in Kansas for the murder of an 80-year-old woman with polio.
His lawyers argued that he should not be executed as he had dementia and claims of several other mental illnesses.
On Wednesday, his attorney, Rebecca Woodman, described him as “a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer's disease and dementia.”
“Though he has long accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him," said Woodman.
Purkey apologized to Long’s family in his final words, saying “I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused to Jennifer’s family. I am deeply sorry. I deeply regret the pain I caused to my daughter, who I love so very much. This sanitized murder really does not serve no purpose whatsoever.”
Long was last seen getting into Purkey’s vehicle on January 22, 1998. Purkey claims to have sexually assaulted her before stabbing and dismembering her, and that he later burnt her body. Authorities were unable to find Long’s remains in the area where he claimed to have disposed of them.
Purkey is the second federal prisoner to be executed this week, following the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on Tuesday. All five of the condemned prisoners were convicted of the murders of children.
Unlike in Lee’s case, where the family members of his victims were opposed to the death penalty, Long’s relatives were supportive--although they thought the process was too long.
Long’s stepmother was critical of the numerous appeals.
“All these appeals, some of them he put through several times. And then we sat in a van for four hours this morning while he did a bunch more appeals,” she said. “We just shouldn’t have to wait this long.”
The resumption of federal executions has been controversial since plans were announced last summer. Prior to this week, the last federal execution was in 2003.
The next scheduled execution is Dustin Lee Honken, who was sentenced to death in 2004 for the murders of five people, including two young girls and their mother. Honken is scheduled to be executed on July 17.
Honken’s spiritual advisor, Fr. Mark O'Keefe, OSB, attempted to delay the execution due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. His request was denied.
Among the supporters of Honken’s bid for clemency is Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, formerly the Archbishop of Indianapolis. Tobin personally asked President Donald Trump to commute Honken’s sentence to life in prison.
In a letter to the president, Tobin explained that he had known Honken for seven years, and had witnessed his spiritual growth. Tobin wrote that Honken’s crimes are “heinous,” but that his execution “will do nothing to restore justice or heal those still burdened by these crimes.”
“Instead, his execution will reduce the government of the United States to the level of a murderer and serve to perpetuate a climate of violence which brutalizes our society in so many ways,” Tobin wrote, noting that the use of the death penalty makes the United States an “outlier” in the world.
“If his death sentence is commuted, Mr. Honken expects to spend his remaining days in prison,” Tobin wrote.
“By commuting this death sentence, you would help stem the tide of anger and revenge that threatens our country,” he told the president.
Other bishops have condemned the renewed use of the death penalty by the federal government after a 17-year moratorium.
On July 7, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, Kentucky, Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City, Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, and Bishop Richard Pates who is the apostolic administrator of Joliet, Illinois, all joined more than 1,000 faith leaders in calling for a stop to scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates.
“As our country grapples with the COVID 19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions,” the faith leaders stated.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2267 on the death penalty was updated in 2018 with a statement from Pope Francis, calling the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”