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Buddhist priest sues to halt inmate's federal execution because of coronavirus risk

"There is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan," an ACLU attorney said.
The death chamber, equipped for lethal injection, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
The death chamber, equipped for lethal injection, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.Chuck Robinson / AP file

A Zen Buddhist priest filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Attorney General William Barr and other officials seeking to delay one of the four executions set to begin this month, which would be the first use of the federal death penalty in 17 years.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the firm Ropes & Gray LLP, is on behalf of Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest who has been ministering to Wesley Purkey, an Indiana man on death row for murder and rape, for more than a decade.

Hartkemeyer believes he has a "religious obligation" to attend Purkey's execution, which is scheduled for July 15, but at 68 and with a history of lung ailments, according to the suit, he is in a higher-risk category for developing the coronavirus.

Hartkemeyer's attendance at Purkey's execution "would pose a grave risk" to his health, according to the suit. Correctional facilities have become hot spots for the coronavirus, leading to the early release of certain prisoners, as well as protests over complaints of deteriorating conditions.

At the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, where Purkey will be put to death via lethal injection, there have been five known cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. A 56-year-old inmate at the prison who had the coronavirus died in May, the bureau said.

The suit argues that Purkey's execution, as well as those of the others, which will all take place in Terre Haute, are going to attract people and the media from across the country, require large teams to carry out the execution process and put witnesses into small viewing rooms that don't allow for proper social distancing.

Hartkemeyer's rights are being violated under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the suit claims.

"Rev. Hartkemeyer is now forced to choose between abandoning his religious obligation to Mr. Purkey and facing an unacceptably high risk of COVID-19 exposure," according to the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project, decried the revival of executions during a pandemic as "appalling."

"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," she said in a statement. "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."

The Department of Justice declined to comment Thursday about the latest lawsuit.

In December, the department asked the Supreme Court to allow the federal government to resume executions after a federal judge issued an injunction surrounding the four scheduled execution cases, including that of Purkey.

The last execution carried out by the federal government was in 2003. Since then, while several states have moved to abolish the death penalty, the movement on the federal level ground to a halt — a combination of the lack of priority under previous administrations, concerns over botched executions and the delays caused by extended appeals.

But the Trump administration is now pressing ahead with capital punishment cases.

"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," Barr said last month.

The first of the four executions is scheduled for July 13. Purkey is set to die two days later. His attorneys have previously attempted to stop his execution, saying Purkey is not mentally competent enough to be executed because he has Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.

Purkey was found guilty in the rape and murder of a 16-year-old Kansas girl in 1998 and the bludgeoning death of an 80-year-old woman with polio.