ACLU Lawsuit Urges AG Barr to Delay Federal Execution of Convicted Child Killer

July 2, 2020 Updated: July 2, 2020

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Attorney General William Barr and other federal officials demanding that they delay the federal execution of death row prisoner Wesley Purkey in order to protect the health of his Buddhist priest during the pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Buddhist priest Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, who had ministered Purkey for eleven years. Hartkemeyer is religiously obligated to attend Purkey’s execution, which is scheduled for July 15, but argues that by doing so, he would put in at risk of contracting the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.

Hartkemeyer, who is 68 years old and has lung-related illnesses, has been designated as a witness to Purkey’s execution, which requires him to be present at the prison location where the execution will take place. The lawsuit alleges that the federal government’s scheduling of Purkey’s execution at a time and place that cannot guarantee the safety of individuals entitled to be present at the execution violates Hartkemeyer’s right to free exercise of religion.

“Rev. Hartkemeyer must decide whether to risk his own life in order to exercise his religious obligation to be present for Mr. Purkey’s execution,” the complaint (pdf) argued.

Hartkemeyer’s lawyers are asking the court to temporarily block the execution and compel the government to postpone Purkey’s execution until it can be carried out without burdening the Buddhist priest’s rights.

“I should not have to risk my health and life to perform my sacred priestly duties. We must ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice to enable the government to perpetuate a cycle of killing,” Hartkemeyer said in a statement.
Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement she believes that “there is no reason to resume federal executions during a pandemic, especially when it would keep a priest from performing his religious commitments to a man about to lose his life.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment on the lawsuit.
Purkey’s execution is the second of three scheduled federal executions this month. He was convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl and bludgeoning an 80-year-old woman to death. His execution is one of the first announced federal executions after Barr announced in July 2019 that they were resuming federal executions following a nearly 20-year hiatus.
On June 29, the Supreme Court declined to review a challenge by several death row inmates asking justices to clarify the law on how the government carries out federal executions. The four inmates—Daniel Lewis Lee, Dustin Lee Honken, Keith Dwayne Nelson, and Purkey—who were convicted of murdering children argued that their scheduled lethal injections would violate the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, which requires that executions be met “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”
When Barr announced that the department was resuming federal execution, he also said the department was replacing a three-drug procedure that had been used in federal executions with a single drug, pentobarbital.
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