A Zen Buddhist priest filed a federal lawsuit against Attorney General William Barr and other officials Thursday to delay one of the four executions scheduled to begin this month. This would be the first application of the federal death penalty in 17 years.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Ropes & Gray LLP, has been on behalf of Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest, and Wesley Purkey, an Indiana man on death row for murder and rape, for more than three years serves a decade.
Hartkemeyer believes he has a “religious obligation”
Hartkemeyer’s presence at Purkey’s execution “would, according to the lawsuit, pose a serious risk to his health.” Coronavirus has become a focal point for prisons, which has led to the early release of certain prisoners and protests against complaints about worsening conditions.
At the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, where Purkey is killed by lethal injection, five cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, are known to exist, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A 56-year-old inmate in the prison who had the coronavirus died in May, the office said.
The lawsuit argues that Purkey’s execution, as well as that of the others, which will all take place in Terre Haute, will attract people and media from across the country, requiring large teams to complete the execution process and witnessing small viewing spaces that do not provide adequate social detachment allow.
Hartkemeyer’s rights are violated according to the federal law on the restoration of religious freedom, the lawsuit says.
“Rev. Hartkemeyer is now forced to choose between abandoning his religious commitment to Mr. Purkey and an unacceptably high risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the lawsuit said at the U.S. District Court for the southern Indiana district was submitted.
Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said the resuscitation of executions during a pandemic was “horrific”.
“Asking hundreds of people from across the country to go to Indiana now to take part in this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building,” she said in a statement. “We have had no federal execution for 17 years: there is absolutely no reason for the government to pursue such a ruthless and dangerous plan.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
In December, the division requested the Supreme Court to allow the federal government to resume executions after a federal judge issued an injunction on the four planned executions, including Purkey’s.
The last execution by the federal government was in 2003. Since then, while several states have decided to abolish the death penalty, the federal movement has stalled – a combination of lack of priority among previous administrations, concerns about botched executions, and the delays caused by extensive vocations were caused.
But the Trump administration is now driving death sentences.
“We owe the victims of these horrific crimes and the families left behind to continue the punishment imposed by our judicial system,” Barr said last month.
The first of the four executions is scheduled for July 13. Purkey will die two days later. His lawyers previously tried to stop his execution. They said Purkey wasn’t mentally competent enough to be executed because he had Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
Purkey was found guilty in 1998 of raping and killing a 16-year-old Kansas girl and bludgeoning the death of an 80-year-old woman with polio.