July 16, 2020

Wesley Purkey’s Execution Is an Affront to the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Own Precedent

Federal Government Executes Second Man This Week


July 16, 2020

CONTACT: Nancy Rodriguez media@acslaw.org

Washington, D.C.  – American Constitution Society President Russ Feingold released the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow the federal execution of Wesley Purkey, a man suffering from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries and dementia.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits executing someone who lacks a rational understanding of the basis for his execution, yet the federal government still chose to take the life of Wesley Purkey, a man with a long, documented history of medical and mental health problems. The U.S. Supreme Court permitted the government to move forward with Mr. Purkey’s execution despite compelling but unresolved claims that Mr. Purkey’s 'mental illness prevents him from rationally understanding why the State seeks to execute him.' A court never had the chance to resolve these claims, yet the government rushed forward with Wesley Purkey’s execution within hours of the Court lifting the lower court’s stay. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in the Supreme Court’s dissent, ‘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.’

“The death penalty and the zeal with which the government has implemented it after 17 years  – first with Daniel Lewis Lee, and now with Wesley Purkey – is repulsive and an affront to our Constitution. It didn’t have to be this way. The government made a conscious decision to end these men’s lives in the government’s name. There are other options for punishment available to prosecutors and the courts.

“As we have seen since its enactment, cases brought under the Federal Death Penalty Act are often plagued by issues of racism, ineffective assistance of counsel, junk science, and lack of appellate review and other procedural deficiencies. Further, those sentenced to death in the federal system are overwhelmingly poor, suffer from mental illness, and/or were subjected to relentless trauma in their developmental years. Rather than being reserved for the “worst of the worst,” the death penalty in practice is reserved for the most vulnerable of people.

“To be clear, this administration’s insistence on reviving the federal death penalty and pursuing executions with unprecedented speed is not, as it would have you believe, based on public sentiment. The public’s support for the death penalty is at a record low according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Americans now favor life imprisonment without parole over execution for those convicted of murder, by a margin of 60% to 34%. The death penalty is a cruel, immoral and racist policy, and it is past time the federal government stop violating the Constitution and listen to the will of the people and end the death penalty.”


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