Supreme Court lifts stay for second federal execution this week

Supreme Court lifts stay for second federal execution this week
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted another injunction on the Trump administration's rapid push to resume federal death sentences this week.

A divided court lifted one of a handful of injunctions temporarily blocking the execution of a man whose lawyers say suffers from severe dementia.

The vote was 5-4 with the liberal justices — Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerHouse Democrats can sue Trump over U.S.-Mexico border wall funding, court rules Supreme Court declines to halt Trump border wall Supreme Court clears way for second federal execution MORE, Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgMore Democrats than Republicans say Supreme Court key to 2020 vote Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Ginsburg discharged from hospital after nonsurgical procedure MORE, Elena KaganElena KaganLeBron James' group to donate 0K to pay fines for ex-felons seeking to vote in Florida Supreme Court declines to reinstate vote of nearly 1 million Florida felons Supreme Court clears way for second federal execution MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorVoters should channel the Black Lives Matter energy at the polls Supreme Court's approval rating highest in over a decade: Gallup GOP asks Supreme Court to reinstate Arizona voting rules deemed racially biased MORE — dissenting. The order lifts an injunction from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that's been in place for weeks.


Just hours before Wesley Ira Purkey was scheduled to be executed Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge in D.C. also ordered two separate injunctions against the death sentence.

The Department of Justice filed emergency petitions with the Supreme Court asking the justices to lift those as well.

The accelerated appeals process also took place earlier this week when the Supreme Court lifted injunctions on another death row inmate named Daniel Lewis Lee at 2 a.m. Tuesday morning. Just hours later, Lee became the first prisoner to be executed by the federal government since 2003.

Judge Tanya Chutkan, the judge in D.C. who has been imposing the injunctions this week, said in a decision on Wednesday that the government's haste to push forward with the executions is partly to blame for the 11th-hour legal maneuvers.

"The speed with which the government seeks to carry out these executions, and the Supreme Court’s prioritization of that pace over additional legal process, makes it considerably more likely that injunctions may issue at the last minute, despite the efforts of Plaintiffs' counsel to raise, and the court to adjudicate, the claims in a timely fashion," said Chutkan, who was appointed to the district court by former President Obama.


The DOJ asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to order Chutkan not to issue any more last-minute injunctions in the death penalty cases, one of which challenges the legality of the administration's new execution protocol that involves the injection of the drug pentobarbital.

Purkey's attorneys say that the inmate, who was convicted of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of a 16-year-old girl, is mentally unfit for execution.

“Wes Purkey is a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia," Rebecca Woodman, one of his attorneys, said in a statement Wednesday. "Though he has long accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him. By staying Wes’s execution, the court’s action signals the importance of allowing him to present the extensive, available medical evidence demonstrating his incompetency to be executed.”

– John Kruzel contributed