At 4 AM on Tuesday 14th July 2020, Danny Lewis Lee was taken from his cell in the federal facility at Terre Haute, led to the execution chamber and strapped to the gurney. According to initial reports by both his attorney, Ruth Friedman, and by Tim Evans, a press witness actually present, he was left lying there for almost four hours as the government fought to overturn one final legal hurdle. Arkansas Online reported that those claims were later confirmed by the Justice Department.
Eventually, shortly before 8 AM, Lewis was executed. Lewis’s attorney claimed she was not notified. His death warrant had expired. A Bureau of Prisons agency spokesperson questioned by ‘The Appeal’ failed to answer questions about the warrant and no evidence has yet emerged that any new warrant was acquired (as required by Federal Regulation 28 CFR § 26.3).
On Wednesday 15th July 2020, Wesley Ira Purkey was scheduled to be the second federal prisoner to be executed in 17 years. At 8:44 EDT on Thursday 16th July, the prominent Catholic advocate for death row inmates, Sr. Helen Prejean, tweeted: “Wesley Purkey was executed by the federal government 20 minutes ago. As far as we know right now, the government did not have a valid execution warrant. We also don’t yet know how long he was strapped down to the gurney — possibly as long as 4.5 hours.”
Eyewitness testimony confirms that after the Department of Prisons thought the execution was finally going ahead at 4 AM they brought the witnesses to the site, where the witnesses then spent 4 hours sitting in their minibuses outside the execution complex, waiting. They finally entered the building at 07:53 and saw Purkey already strapped to the gurney when the curtain was raised at 07:55. Like Lee, he was executed around eight in the morning—despite his execution warrant also having expired at midnight.
All this raises the question whether on Tuesday 14th and Thursday 16th July the US government actually achieved their objective of restarting federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. Executions that the federal government sought at all costs and with slight regard for the substantial goods due process of law is supposed to protect, at best establish a dangerous precedent. At worst, they take on the guise of judicial murder.
Both men were convicted of terrible crimes, but Lee’s case was especially controversial. In 1996, Danny Lewis Lee and his accomplice, Chevie Kehoe, kidnapped William Mueller, 52; Mueller’s wife Nancy, 28; and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell. They stole guns and money, with which they planned to set up a white supremacist state, then murdered all three. But the prosecution claimed that Chevie Kehoe was the ringleader, and a government witness testified that Kehoe, not Lee, killed the 8-year-old Sarah when Lee refused to do so. Yet Kehoe, the ringleader, the probable child killer, received life imprisonment. Lee received the death penalty.
The trial judge, the lead prosecutor and the victims’ family all fought for Lee’s life in what Ruth Friedman, Lee’s attorney, describes as “what may be an unprecedented occurrence in a capital case” with the victims’ family fighting the execution to the bitter end. All their pleas were in vain.
If one ignores Wesley Ira Purkey’s childhood history of abuse and possible brain injury, then his death sentence wasn’t particularly controversial. In 1998, Purkey brutally murdered both a 16-year-old girl and an 80-year old woman within the space of nine months. At the time of his execution, Purkey’s attorneys brought significant evidence that Purkey was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia. His mental competence was in question. In a court filing late on Wednesday, July 15th, Purkey’s attorneys claimed that the Justice Department had only just revealed that it held “scientific confirmation” of “significant structural abnormalities in Mr. Purkey’s brain that are consistent with cognitive impairment such as vascular dementia or other conditions.”
The US Supreme Court overturned an injunction granted by the district court concerning his incompetence to be executed despite the lower court ruling that the government had failed to provide any “independent evidence of competence”.
The issue here is not whether the death penalty should or should not be in used in modern America.
On Tuesday, July 14th, 2020, US government agents left a man to languish nearly four hours, strapped to a gurney, before killing him under dubious legal circumstances. Then, they did it again.
Lee and Purkey were guilty of appalling crimes. That alone is not sufficient reason to put them to death, while the circumstances under which authorities carried out their sentences must give pause to anyone who loves ordered liberty and rule of law. If a government feels it can dispense with death warrants and kill with impunity, then it has taken the first step on a very short route to the most abject tyranny.
The United States took two such steps last month.
Corinna Turner is author most recently of Three Last Things: or The Hounding of Carl Jarrold
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