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Buddhist Priest Seeks to Halt Federal Execution During Pandemic

July 6, 2020, 4:40 PM

A 68-year-old Buddhist priest has asked a federal court in Indiana to halt Wesley Purkey’s scheduled July 15 execution, saying he shouldn’t be forced to choose between exercising his religious obligations to the convicted murder and the risk of catching Covid-19.

Prisons and detention facilities have become hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks, Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer said in his July 2 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Purkey’s execution at the federal high-security prison in Terre Haute is scheduled to take place just two days after Daniel Lewis Lee’s, according to the filing.

“Each execution will require the travel, movement, and congregation of hundreds of individuals, including the families of the victims and the death row prisoners, scores of correctional officers, members of local and national media, as well as large numbers of witnesses and legal counsel from around the country,” Hartkemeyer said.

Only one other federal prison has executed an inmate during the pandemic, and the Missouri facility saw an outbreak of Covid-19 infections after the execution in May, he said.

Hartkemeyer has been Purkey’s priest and spiritual adviser for 11 years and says he’s entitled to attend his execution, whenever it takes place. But Hartkemeyer claims to be at a high risk of contracting the respiratory virus and developing complications because of his age and a history of severe bronchitis and pleurisy.

The government is accused of arbitrarily and capriciously scheduling executions when it can’t guarantee the safety of attendees and the public. The government has also allegedly imposed “substantial pressure” on the priest to “violate his sincere religious beliefs regarding the nature of his role as a spiritual adviser,” Hartkemeyer said

He’s asking the court to block the Bureau of Prisons from carrying out Purkey’s execution until a treatment or vaccine is available.

Purkey murdered 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales and 16-year-old Jennifer Long in 1998. He’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease since entering prison.

Causes of Action: Religious Freedom Restoration Act; Administrative Procedure Act.

Relief: Declaratory and injunctive relief; attorney’s fees; costs.

Response: The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorneys: The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and Ropes & Gray LLP represent Hartkemeyer. The Justice Department represents the Attorney General.

The case is Hartkemeyer v. Barr, S.D. Ind., No. 20-cv-00336, complaint filed 7/2/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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