ACLU lawsuit calls on Barr to delay federal execution

ACLU lawsuit calls on Barr to delay federal execution
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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Attorney General William BarrBill BarrGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Barr pulls over to thank pro-police rally in Virginia Trump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent MORE and other officials on Thursday requesting a delay in the federal execution of Wesley Purkey in order to protect his Buddhist priest during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest who has ministered to Purkey for more than a decade, making him “religiously obligated” to attend the execution. But Hartkemeyer, 68, has “lung-related illnesses that make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” according to an ACLU release.

Purkey is scheduled to be executed on July 15 in Indiana, but the reverend is asking the court to move the execution back until there is an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.

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“Rev. Hartkemeyer has been put to an untenable choice: risk his health, and possibly his life, in order to carry out his sincere religious beliefs, or violate those beliefs by failing to fulfill his religious commitment toward Mr. Purkey,” the complaint reads

Hartkemeyer was designated as a witness to the execution meaning he is also required under federal regulations to attend. 

The lawsuit argues that the scheduling of the execution violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and forces the reverend to choose between his religious obligations and his health. 

“I should not have to risk my health and life to perform my sacred priestly duties,” Hartkemeyer said in a statement. “We must ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice to enable the government to perpetuate a cycle of killing.”

The execution of Purkey, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl and killing an 80-year-old woman, is the second of three scheduled federal executions for this month. The Department of Justice (DOJ) instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to schedule the executions for July after a 17-year pause.

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The ACLU warns that these executions could be “super-spreader events” for COVID-19 as it will gather hundreds of people, including correctional officers, media members and legal counsel at Terre Haute prison. The Indiana prison where Purkey is scheduled to be executed has recorded five cases of COVID-19 among inmates and one death, according to Bureau of Prisons data.

Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement that the scheduling of the executions during the pandemic is “appalling.”

“Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building,” she said. “We haven’t had a federal execution in 17 years: There is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan.”

The lawsuit, filed in partnership with Ropes Gray LLP, was filed within the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Besides Barr, the complaint also names Michael Carvajal, the director of the Bureau of Prisons and T.J. Watson, the warden of the Terre Haute federal correctional complex.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the BOP said the agency "does not comment on pending litigation or matters that are the subject of legal proceedings."