The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday sued Attorney General William Barr demanding the Justice Department delay the federal execution of rapist and murderer Wesley Purkey so his Buddhist priest, who is staying away because of coronavirus, can attend the lethal injection.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Rev. Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest who has served as Purkey’s minister for over a decade.
Mr. Hartkemeyer, 68, says he is “religiously obligated” to attend the execution, but a “lung-related illness” makes him particularly vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus, according to the lawsuit.
Mr. Hartkemeyer was picked as a witness to the execution, meaning federal regulations require his attendance.
The lawsuit maintains that Mr. Hartkemeyer’s required attendance forces him to choose between his health and religious obligations as well as violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“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 lawsuit reads.
A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Purkey was convicted in 2003 of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl and bludgeoning to death an 80-year-old woman in Missouri. He is set to be executed on July 15 in Indiana.
The ACLU says the execution should be postponed until there is an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“I should not have to risk my health and life to perform my sacred priestly duties,” Mr. 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.”
Purkey is one of three federal executions scheduled by the Justice Department this month. In June, the Justice Department ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for July after a 17-year hiatus.
However, the ACLU warned the execution could increase the spread of the coronavirus because hundreds of people, including lawyers, journalists and prison officials, will attend.
The Terre Haute prison where Purkey is scheduled to be executed has reported five COVID-19 infections and one death from the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
“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,” said Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project.
“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,” she continued.
In addition to Mr. Barr, the lawsuit also names Michael Carvajal, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, and T.J. Watson, the warden of the Terre Haute federal correctional complex.