The federal government has resumed executions during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting unsuccessful challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court.
One condemned man argued that the use of pentobarbital to carry out his execution would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The challenges also question whether the reasonable fears of contracting COVID, held by the family of the victims and spiritual advisers were sufficient cause to impose stays.
Three federal prisoners were at the center of these emergency arguments, made necessary by the government’s unexpected and hasty decision to carry out executions in the midst of the pandemic.
Daniel Lewis Lee was put to death July 13, Wesley Ira Purkey was executed July 15, and Dustin Lee Honken was put to death July 17. All three were executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Lee maintained his innocence and argued that pentobarbital induces the effect of drowning, and therefore must result in extreme pain. A District Court ruled that his argument had merit, but a 5-4 Supreme Court majority rejected his position.
The majority pointed out that more than 100 pentobarbital executions have been performed without incident. The court also ruled Lee’s request for “last-minute” intervention was improper.
Lee remained strapped to the execution gurney for four hours while the legal jousting played out in the high court. Upon the lifting of the stay, his counsel received no notice of the final ruling, and Lee was executed in the middle of the night.
The family members of Lee’s victims had also filed petitions seeking a stay due to concerns about the potential of being infected by COVID-19 while witnessing the execution, due to the presence of four confirmed cases at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, but their request was also denied.
Purkey had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. In his case, the Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a 68-year-old Buddhist priest and Purkey’s spiritual adviser, requested a stay because of his own age and physical health issues. He contended that he was being asked to minister to the condemned prisoner at the risk of his own life.
Honken’s spiritual adviser, Mark O’Keefe, a Roman Catholic priest, made the same argument.
The Supreme Court ruled that protective equipment was available for the advisers and that the executions would be carried out, regardless of the risk created by the pandemic.
The US Department of Justice later stated: “Despite the pandemic, the government still must carry out its important duties.”
These federal actions can be contrasted against what occurred in Tennessee, where two executions were delayed when it was decided that it was impossible for the court to provide full and complete due process under present pandemic conditions.
Federal executions are in contrast to trends in the country which are shifting away from capital punishment. In some instances, it has been the inability to attain execution drugs because pharmaceutical firms no longer wish for their products to be utilized in that fashion. But there are growing changes in the use of the death penalty.
A number of states have abolished capital punishment, and its support has waned in the past few decades.
This is happening now in an atmosphere of protests and unrest over inequalities and racial injustice in cities across the nation and the world.
Keith Dwayne Nelson was scheduled for execution on Aug. 28.