Justice Dept. Plans To Execute Convicted Killer With Schizophrenia & Dementia Unaware Of Why He’s Being Killed


Leading Mental Health Organizations Call on Attorney General Barr to Stop 
July 15 Scheduled Execution of Wesley Purkey Who is Diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s Disease

 (Washington, D.C.) Pointing to the Trump Administration’s commitment to “addressing the needs of individuals with serious mental illnesses” and arguing that “proceeding with his execution would violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on executing people who are not competent to understand the reason for their execution,” three of the country’s leading mental health organizations today submitted a letter strongly urging the Trump Administration to withdraw the July 15 execution date of federal death row prisoner Wes Purkey, and to commute his sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. 
The letter, signed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), cites Mr. Purkey’s childhood history of “horrific physical and sexual abuse” and of psychiatric problems including institutionalizations beginning at age 14. “His diagnoses included schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and brain damage. He experienced terrifying delusions and hallucinations, including the belief that people were spraying a poisonous mist into his room and that drug dealers had implanted a device in his chest that was intended to kill him.” 
The letter from the three organizations can be accessed here.
(7-10-20) Should the federal government execute a convicted murderer with a long history of schizophrenia who has now developed Alzheimer’s disease and may not understand why he is being put to death?

The courts have ruled that a condemned prisoner has to be aware of why he is being executed or he can’t be put to death, but Attorney General William Barr is moving forward without conducting the necessary medical tests to judge the inmate’s competency while withholding medical information as part of his push to again begin executing federal inmates after a two decade moratorium.

Ron Honberg, J.D., former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has written an editorial in Newsweek magazine explaining why he opposes the execution of Wesley Purkey on July 15th, one of four scheduled federal executions under orders by  Barr.

President Trump vowed to revive federal executions, which could explain why Barr is hurrying before the November elections, even though a record 60 percent of Americans favor life without parole over executions,according to the latest Gallup poll.

“As with all death penalty cases, the facts of this one are not pretty,” Honberg acknowledges.

The 68-year-old Purkey confessed to raping, murdering and dismembering 16-year-old Jennifer Long in 1998 and also was convicted of murdering 80 year-old Mary Ruth Bales with a hammer.

Emily Rittman, Long’s stepmother, told Kansas television station KCTV5 , that she welcomes the execution. “Good riddance…I can’t forgive him.”

But Honberg notes that “Purkey suffered almost unspeakable physical and sexual abuse as a child and had been in and out of institutions and diagnosed with schizophrenia and neurological conditions prior to his crimes.”

During his more than two decades in prison, Purkey’s mental illness and neurological conditions have worsened and three years ago he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “There are serious questions whether he even understands why he is to be executed…” Honberg writes.

The U.S. is Set to Execute a Man with Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. He Won’t Even Know Why | Opinion, printed in Newsweek.

By Ron Honberg, reprinted with his permission.

On July 15, the federal government plans to execute Wesley Purkey, a 68-year-old man with multiple brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

The law is clear.

Under the Constitution, an execution can only be carried out when the prisoner understands why he is being executed.

Mr. Purkey believes his death is punishment, not for his crime, but for his frequent complaints against prison officials over prison conditions.

In a lawsuit filed last November, Mr. Purkey’s attorneys point to evidence of decades of delusional behavior and rapidly progressing dementia. An expert who examined Mr. Purkey concluded that his dementia and mental illness have progressed to the point that he is incapable of rationally understanding the reason for his execution.

Though that is what the law requires, the Justice Department is rushing forward with his execution, while withholding critical medical records and without giving the courts time to hold a hearing.

Ron Honberg

Long History of Mental Problems: Warnings Ignored

Institutionalized on and off from age 14, Mr. Purkey has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, brain damage, and bipolar disorder. Records reveal decades of paranoid delusions, similar to those he suffers from today. These include elaborate conspiracies involving FBI plots and repeated beliefs that family members were poisoning him. Once he was admitted to the emergency room after claiming that his house was wired and that people on the roof were spraying a poisonous mist into his room that could be “activated by a beam.”

Another time he called the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to report that drug dealers had planted something in his chest and were trying to kill him with chemicals in the ceiling and the vents. On another occasion, he tore out the insulation from his home because he thought the FBI installed cameras in it.

While on death row, Mr. Purkey’s paranoia and delusions have worsened as his dementia has progressed. For nearly a decade, he has filed countless complaints against prison staff accusing them of putting poison and feces in his food, urinating on his laundry, and forcing him to live in a cell “caked in feces.” Mr. Purkey firmly believes in these conspiracies and sees any evidence to the contrary as manufactured to cover-up the truth.

Mr. Purkey has long been remorseful for the crime that put him on federal death row. But as his Alzheimer’s and delusions have progressed, he no longer understands why the government plans to execute him. Whether someone is competent to be executed cannot legally or logically be determined without a review of the evidence and testimony of a medical professional. Most states with the death penalty have a clear set of procedures to address a prisoner’s competence to be executed. The federal government, however, has no such process. Mr. Purkey’s attorneys have filed a lawsuit requesting a hearing on his competency and seeking to obtain critical medical records the government refuses to turn over. The federal district court in Washington, D.C., has yet to rule on these requests.

Notably, the federal government announced Mr. Purkey’s execution date in June, the month dedicated to raising awareness about Alzheimer’s and brain disease. Alzheimer’s disease is marked by progressive memory loss and deteriorated cognitive abilities, including memory loss and inability to carry on a conversation.

Alzheimer’s progresses rapidly; most diagnosed with it die within three to eight years.

That decline may be even swifter for Mr. Purkey, because he has multiple types of dementia and because of substandard medical care in prison. Mr. Purkey’s Alzheimer’s has left him not only unable to understand the reason for his execution, but unable to remember significant events and names of the most important people in his life.

Acknowledging Mr. Purkey’s lack of mental competence to be executed does not excuse his crime, nor should it be taken as an erasure of the irreparable pain, suffering, and loss to his victim’s family, which they surely continue to experience.

Indeed, no matter what, Mr. Purkey will die in prison.

Our system of justice demands that mindless vengeance not be the focus of punishment. At a time when Americans are grappling with many inequities in our society, including gross deficiencies in the ways we handle mental health issues, Wes Purkey’s scheduled execution should offend all of our senses of decency.

The federal courts must step in now to prevent this unconstitutional execution from taking place.

-Ron Honberg

I’ve personally opposed the death penalty since 1996 when I wrote Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life and Justice In A Southern Town, which describes how an innocent black man in Alabama was framed for the murder of a white teenager. (The case was later highlighted in Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling book, Just Mercy, which was made into a movie by the same name.)

Although it was not my intention, another of my books, The Serial Killer Whisper, helped prompt the 2012 execution of a Florida serial killer, but that did not change my opposition to the penalty.

Barr’s decision to execute a prisoner with a long history of schizophrenia and now dementia before determining if he is competent appears to be more about pleasing his boss in the White House than justice.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.