Death Row Prisoner Wesley Purkey Suffering from Alzheimer’s – Incompetent for Execution?

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By Yuanqi Ivy Zhou

Washington, D.C. – Wesley Purkey is scheduled for federal execution Wednesday, despite his serious mental health issues and Alzheimer’s dementia “so severe that he doesn’t even understand the reason for his execution.” Purkey’s attorney Rebecca Woodman filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent Purkey’s execution, with the support of three leading national mental health organizations.

Records from the Untied States Department of Justice indicate that Wesley Ira Purkey is a 68-year-old man convicted for the violent kidnapping, raping, and murdering of 16-year-old Jennifer Long, as well as for dumping the girl’s body in a septic pond in Kansas City, Missouri. Purkey was also condemned for using a claw hammer to beat to death a 80-year-old woman, Mary Ruth Bales, suffering from polio and walking on a cane in Kansas City, Kansas. Purkey was sentenced to death by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on November 5, 2003.

In a motion for a preliminary injunction, attorneys for Purkey argued that he first developed a series of mental health issues and a severe case of Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Dr. Jonathan DeRight, a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in dementia, confirms his diagnosis by finding that “Purkey shows significant memory deficits and demonstrated signs of progressive dementia, including frequent repetition of stories, language problems, misplaced belongings, and the beginning loss of control over his biological systems.”

Purkey’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a result of his lifelong history of trauma and mental illness. Since age 10, Purkey suffered “relentless physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, including being repeatedly raped by his mother.” Since age 14, Purkey was diagnosed with “serious mental illnesses, including complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and psychosis.”

At the same time, he also suffered numerous traumatic brain injuries. By age 68, “these conditions also include severe and progressive dementia that seriously impairs Mr. Purkey’s memory and cognitive functioning, and includes severe delusions and paranoia.”

Dr. Bhushan Agharkar, a professional psychiatrist, examined Purkey multiple times over the past years and tracked his deteriorating mental functionality. Agharkar inputs that Purkey “has at least three of the most important risk factors for dementia – age, family history and head injuries.” Agharkar officially concludes that “Mr. Purkey lack[s] a rational understanding of the basis for his execution,” making him reject his real history and develop his own conspiracy against the government and his attorneys. Arharkar found Purkey to be incompetent to be executed.

Since then, Purkey’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease and deteriorating cognitive function has evolved to the point where he does not even understand why the government is executing him—convinced that the government is executing him for his complaints about prison conditions and that his lawyers are working with the government.

Attorney Rebecca Woodman with Miller & Chevalier, who represents Purkey, states that “Wes Purkey is a severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.” Though Woodman admits that Purkey “has long accepted responsibility for the crime that put him on death row, as his dementia has progressed, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him.”

With his execution scheduled for July 15, 2020, Woodman has filed the preliminary injunction, arguing against the execution of Purkey on the basis that Purkey is mentally incompetent for such execution. Woodman cites that this execution would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which forbids the execution of a prisoner who lacks a “rational understanding of the basis for his execution.”

Woodman maintains, “The Eighth Amendment prohibits executing someone who, like Wes, lacks a rational understanding of the basis for his execution, and the court must not allow the execution to go forward unless and until it can confirm that Mr. Purkey has this understanding.”

Along with the preliminary injunction, Woodman and her team requested more time for conducting a hearing to evaluate Purkey’s competency, by requesting a full assessment of his competency and medical records in accordance with due process.

The defense argues that this case “truly exposes the federal government’s lack of a standard procedure for prisoners with competency-to-be-executed claims.”

The motion for preliminary injunction is still currently pending at the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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