U.S. executes 2nd man in a week; lawyers said he had dementia

Wesley Ira Purkey died by lethal injection in the federal government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus.
In this 1998 photo, Wesley Ira Purkey, center, is escorted by police officers in Kansas City, Kan., after he was arrested in connection with the death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales.
In this 1998 photo, Wesley Ira Purkey, center, is escorted by police officers in Kansas City, Kan., after he was arrested in connection with the death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales.Jim Barcus / The Kansas City Star via AP

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/ Source: Associated Press
By Associated Press

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The United States on Thursday carried out its second federal execution this week, killing by lethal injection a Kansas man whose lawyers contended he had dementia and was unfit to be executed.

Wesley Ira Purkey was put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Purkey was convicted of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old girl before dismembering, burning and dumping her body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in a state court in Kansas after using a claw hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman who had polio.

Purkey expressed remorse right before he was executed.

“I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused to Jennifer’s family,” he said. “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.”

His time of death was 8:19 a.m. EDT.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for the execution to take place just hours before, ruling in a 5-4 decision. The four liberal justices dissented, like they did for the first case earlier this week.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “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.” She was joined by fellow liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

It was the federal government’s second execution after a 17-year hiatus. Another man, Daniel Lewis Lee, was put to death Tuesday after his 11th hour legal bids failed.

Both executions were delayed into the day after they were scheduled as legal wrangling continued late into the night and into the next morning.

The Justice Department has been questioned for holding the executions in the middle of the worsening coronavirus pandemic, prompting lawsuits over fears those who would travel to the prison could become infected. The decision to resume executions after nearly two decades was criticized as a dangerously political move in an election year, forcing an issue that is not high on the list of American priorities considering the 11% unemployment rate and the pandemic.

Purkey’s lawyers had argued his condition had deteriorated so severely that he didn’t understand why he was being executed. They said he was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a child and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.

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 and dumped her ashes 200 miles (320 kilometers) 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.

Purkey had a long history of childhood trauma, was sexually abused by family members and a Catholic priest and was beaten by other family members, said Liz Vartkessian, a mitigation specialist who worked with Purkey’s legal team and visited him dozens of times in the last five years.

“His case is replete with instances where he has expressed a deep remorse,” she said in an interview earlier this month.

But recently, Purkey’s mental health had seriously deteriorated to the point he didn’t have the stamina for long visits with his legal team and often forgot key facts and dates, she said.

Correction officers had to help him write down a schedule to remember his visits with his lawyers, she said.

He also had a long history of paranoia and delusions and believed the Justice Department was moving forward with his execution because of many complaints and lawsuits he brought in prison, even though most had failed, Vartkessian said.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C., imposed two injunctions prohibiting the federal Bureau of Prisons from moving forward with Purkey’s execution. The Justice Department filed immediate appeals in both cases. A separate temporary stay had already been place from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chutkan didn't rule on whether Purkey was mentally competent but said the court needed to evaluate the claim, saying he would suffer “irreparable harm” if he was put to death before the issue could be evaluated by the court.

The legal questions of whether Purkey 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 to be put to death.

In a landmark 1986 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits putting someone to death who lacks a reasonable understanding of why he is being executed. It involved the case of Alvin Ford, who was convicted of murder but whose mental health deteriorated behind bars to the point where, according to his lawyer, he believed he was pope.

Last week, three mental health organizations urged U.S. Attorney William Barr to stop Purkey’s execution and commute his sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. The letter — signed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and the Treatment Advocacy Center — said that executing mentally ailing individuals like Purkey “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and does not comport with ‘evolving standards of decency.’”

The mother of the teen he killed, Glenda Lamont, told the Kansas City Star last year she planned to attend the execution.

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy,” Lamont said. “At the same time, he is a crazy mad man that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore.”

The Supreme Court also lifted a hold placed on other executions set for Friday and next month.

Dustin Honken, a drug kingpin from Iowa convicted of killing five people in a scheme to silence former dealers, was scheduled for execution Friday.

NBC News contributed.