Government Executes Second Federal Death Row Prisoner in a Week

The Bureau of Prisons put to death Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, on Tuesday morning for his part in the murder of a family of three. Just hours before, the Supreme Court issued the final go-ahead, ruling in a split 5-4 decision in the dead of night that the federal government’s single-drug execution protocol was constitutional. The verdict cleared the way for Mr. Lee, Mr. Purkey, and Dustin Lee Honken, scheduled to die on Friday, to be executed this week.

Mr. Purkey’s lawyers had argued that he was incompetent to be executed. They said he suffered from schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain damage, which left him unable to comprehend why he was sentenced to death. He believed that his execution was intended as retaliation by the federal government for his frequent complaints about prison conditions, they said.

Judge Tanya Chutkan of the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled on Wednesday that Mr. Purkey’s execution should be delayed until the court could determine whether he was fit to be executed.

In a separate decision, Judge Chutkan also ruled on Wednesday that the lethal injection protocol required additional litigation to determine whether it violated several federal statutes and the inmates’ constitutional rights. She cited the potential for “irreparable harm” if the inmates were put to death before their claims could be resolved by the court.

The government filed an immediate appeal in both cases. Judge Chutkan’s delays forced the Bureau to briefly postpone Mr. Purkey’s death, scheduled for Wednesday evening. The Supreme Court, which overturned a similar ruling from Judge Chutkan about the single-drug protocol in Mr. Lee’s case earlier this week, vacated both preliminary injunctions early Thursday.

In the case concerning Mr. Purkey’s mental fitness, the court split 5-4 with the liberal justices dissenting, as they did earlier this week in Mr. Lee’s case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, wrote that continuing with Mr. Purkey’s execution “despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, reiterated questions about the effectiveness of the death penalty as a form of deterrence and retribution.