December 6, 2019

Executing People with Serious Mental Illness -- Like Wesley Purkey -- Is Wrong

Ron Honberg, J.D. Former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


Wesley Purkey is a 67-year old man in rapid decline from Alzheimer’s disease. He also suffers from longstanding multiple serious mental health issues. In and out of psychiatric hospitals since the age of 14, Mr. Purkey has been diagnosed with and/or treated with medication for schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, brain damage and more. He has complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the “pervasive and extraordinary childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse” he endured. One of the psychiatrists who evaluated Mr. Purkey found eleven different categories of childhood trauma; one of them was being repeatedly raped by his own mother beginning when he was just ten years old.

Mr. Purkey is also one of the first prisoners chosen by the federal government for execution after a 16-year hiatus in federal executions. While a District Court granted a lethal injection-related preliminary injunction on November 20, 2019, to the four prisoners with scheduled federal execution dates, the Department of Justice appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court who will make a final decision. Unless the government or a court intervenes to assert that his case is not appropriate for the death penalty, Mr. Purkey faces imminent execution by the Bureau of Prisons on December 13, 2019.

Mr. Purkey believes he knows why he was chosen for execution. According to one of the mental health experts who has evaluated him, for the last five years, Mr. Purkey has held “a consistent belief that there exists a grand conspiracy against him.” He believes he was singled out by the Bureau of Prisons because of the dozens of lawsuits and grievances he has filed. Mr. Purkey believes his legal filings have had a “monumental impact” and that corrections officers admit to him “all the time” that they know his legal filings are the “real reason” he is being executed.

Recently, a psychiatrist evaluated Mr. Purkey’s persistent delusion about why the government scheduled an execution date for him. That psychiatrist definitively concluded that Mr. Purkey “lacks a rational understanding for the basis for his execution.” Instead, “he has a fixed belief that he is going to be executed in retaliation for his legal work.”

This matters tremendously, both legally and ethically. In my past decades of work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the country’s largest grassroots mental health organization, I specialized in how public policy and the law intersect with mental health issues. These topics can be complex, but the U.S. Supreme Court has made one area crystal clear: a prisoner is not eligible for execution if he lacks a “rational understanding of the reason for the execution.”

In other words, Mr. Purkey’s scheduled execution should not proceed.

The Supreme Court has stated that it does not comport with the U.S. Constitution to execute people whose mental illness or disability, like Mr. Purkey’s, impairs their capacity to rationally understand the nature of the crimes committed or the reasons why the death penalty is being carried out.

Sending confused individuals with severe brain disorders who don’t understand what is happening to them into the execution chamber is incompatible with what the Supreme Court has termed “evolving standards of decency.” That’s not who we are.

As Mr. Purkey ages, his condition is only getting worse. In 2017, Mr. Purkey was diagnosed with dementia, which has now progressed to full blown Alzheimer’s disease. Mental professionals and attorneys have noted his progressive and swift decline.

A psychiatrist who visited Mr. Purkey in 2016 and then again in 2019 noted the “significant deterioration in physical appearance and demeanor,” including the recent development that “the right side of his face is no longer symmetrical with the left side, and only the left side moves when he smiles.”

One psychologist noted that death from Alzheimer’s is typical eight years from diagnosis but can come as soon as three years after diagnosis. Another wrote that Mr. Purkey’s decline should be expected “further and faster” than is typical, given his multiple risk factors for dementia and the low standard of medical care for death row prisoners.

A psychiatrist recently wrote that “the underlying brain damage and mental illness he has are long-standing, irreversible, and will continue to deteriorate as his dementia progresses.”

It is not my intent to excuse Mr. Purkey’s crimes or diminish in any way the pain that he caused to the victim’s family and friends. He has paid a justifiably severe penalty for his crime – incarceration without the possibility of release.

However, the law is clear. It is wrong to execute people whose mental and cognitive disabilities are so severe that they do not understand why they are being killed. The courts must intervene before it’s too late.