Lawyers for federal death-row prisoner Wesley Purkey, who is scheduled to be executed on December 13, 2019, say he is incompetent to be executed because he has Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injuries that “render him unable to rationally understand the reason the United States seeks to execute him.”

Purkey’s complaint, filed November 26, 2019 in federal district court in Washington, catalogues a lifelong history of trauma and mental illness that have contributed to his current condition. He experienced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse beginning at age 5, and began using alcohol and drugs as a child. He has been diagnosed with numerous mental illnesses, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression, and has multiple documented suicide attempts. He has also suffered several brain injuries resulting in damage to his frontal lobe that “limits his capacity to regulate his thoughts, emotion, and behavior, which has deteriorated significantly over time.” Now, his complaint says, he is also suffering from dementia as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing a person who, because of conditions such as mental illness or dementia, “cannot rationally understand his punishment, or the reason for it” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Purkey’s complaint presents reports from two medical experts that his dementia and other mental illnesses interfere with his cognitive functioning, including his ability to cooperate with his attorneys and to rationally understand why he is to be executed. “The underlying brain damage and mental illness he has are long-standing, irreversible, and will continue to deteriorate as his dementia progresses,” wrote Dr. Bhushan S. Agharkar. Purkey believes that there is a conspiracy against him and that he is being executed because his legal efforts to improve prison conditions have made him a “hassle” to the government.

“Wes Purkey is a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease,” Rebecca Woodman, one of Mr. Purkey’s attorneys, said in a statement. “He has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row, but as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him. He believes his execution is part of a large-scale conspiracy against him by the federal government in retaliation for his frequent challenges to prison conditions, and he believes his own lawyers are working against him within this conspiracy…. The Eighth Amendment prohibits executing someone who, like Wes, lacks a rational understanding of the basis for his execution, and the court must not allow the execution to go forward unless and until it can confirm that Mr. Purkey has this understanding.”

Purkey is one of five federal prisoners who were given execution dates in December 2019 and January 2020. Victims’ family members, the trial prosecutor, and the trial judge oppose the executions of Daniel Lee, who received a death sentence after the more culpable ringleader of the murders was sentenced to life. The victims’ relatives and the Navajo Nation opposed the federal government’s decision to seek the death penalty against Lezmond Mitchell for a double murder on Navajo tribal lands. Alfred Bourgeois has a petition pending in federal district court seeking to bar his execution because of intellectual disability. The Texas federal courts previously denied that claim, using an unscientific state-law standard for assessing intellectual disability that the Supreme Court has since declared unconstitutional.

Mitchell received a stay of execution on October 4 to permit a federal appeals court to review a claim regarding anti-Native American bias in his case. On November 20, 2019, a federal district court in Washington issued a preliminary injunction putting the other four executions on hold, finding that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had acted outside its legal authority by unilaterally adopting a federal execution protocol. A federal appeals court upheld the injunction on December 2 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene on December 6. The federal executions would have been the first in the federal system since 2003.


Lawyers Say Federal Death Row Prisoner Has Alzheimer’s, Associated Press, November 27, 2019; Luke Nozicka, Kansas killer’s exe­cu­tion by fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would be uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, lawyers say, The Kansas City Star, November 29, 2019; Andrew Cohen, The Coming Fight over the Federal Death Penalty, Rolling Stone, August 212019.

Read the com­plaint in Wesley Ira Purkey v. William P. Barr. Read the med­ical reports on Wesley Purkey by Dr. Bhushan S. Agharkar and Dr. Jonathan DeRight.