The Courts

Obama-Appointed Judge Blocks Federal Execution

Order is third time judge has stalled Trump admin. effort to resume death penalty

A sign sits on the edge of the property at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana / Getty Images

D.C. District Court judge Tanya S. Chutkan on Wednesday halted the scheduled execution of a federal death row inmate, marking another instance of the Obama appointee stalling the Department of Justice's efforts to restart federal executions.

In an order issued just hours before the inmate's scheduled death, Chutkan temporarily halted the execution of convicted murderer Wesley Ira Purkey, citing his mental illness and dementia as potentially rendering him incompetent to be executed.

Chutkan also separately halted all three of the currently scheduled federal executions, including Purkey's, on the grounds that the federal government's intended execution protocol would violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act—the authorizing statute of the Food and Drug Administration.

The Department of Justice almost immediately appealed Chutkan's orders to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. From there it may need to proceed to the Supreme Court.

This legal back-and-forth mirrors the events of Monday and Tuesday morning, in which a last-minute ruling from Chutkan required the Supreme Court to intervene to approve the execution of white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee. Purkey, scheduled for execution at 7 p.m. in Terre Haute, Ind., may face similar uncertainty in the hours leading up to his death—a product of breakneck litigation of which both death penalty supporters and opponents are critical.

Purkey, 68, has been on death row for more than 16 years, facing execution for the 1998 violent rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Purkey's lawyers contend that the inmate's longstanding schizophrenia and advancing dementia mean an execution would violate the constitutional prohibition on executing those who cannot rationally understand why they are being put to death.

In her ruling on Purkey, Chutkan contended that the inmate had made sufficient showing of his incompetence to be executed to merit a temporary stay. In her other ruling, she enjoined the execution of Purkey and two other federal death row inmates, including one slated for execution on Friday, on the grounds that the federal protocol as outlined does not require a valid prescription for the execution drug, pentobarbital—allegedly running afoul of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Chutkan's rulings may require another last-minute convening of the Supreme Court, which last met around 2 a.m. on Tuesday to wave through the execution of Lee. That situation may be complicated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's temporary hospitalization—Ginsburg previously objected to allowing Lee's execution to proceed.

The Court's conservative wing has been vocally critical of last-minute stays of execution of the sort Chutkan issued. The average death row inmate executed in 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a 2019 report, had been on death row for 20 years. Such situations contribute to deteriorating mental competence to be executed, as in both the case of Purkey and the case of Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison, who spent over 30 years on death row before dying of natural causes in February.

In her opinion, Chutkan seemed to challenge these concerns, charging that "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."

Chutkan has played roadblock to the Trump administration's efforts to restart the federal death penalty since Attorney General William Barr began the project last July. In November, she issued an initial stay, also pertaining to the federal government's proposed execution protocol. Her stay in Lee's case similarly argued that the protocol ran the risk of constitutionally impermissible pain being inflicted on its subject; the Supreme Court rejected that opinion in its Tuesday morning ruling.