ACLU Statement on Loss in Suit to Delay Federal Executions Until After COVID-19

July 14, 2020 12:00 pm

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INDIANAPOLIS — A federal district court issued a ruling today in a suit — led by the American Civil Liberties Union and Ropes Gray LLP against Attorney General William Barr and other federal officials — on behalf of Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest who has ministered to Purkey for over a decade. Rev. Hartkemeyer is religiously obligated to attend Purkey’s execution, scheduled for July 15, but doing so would put his health and life at severe risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court rejected Rev. Hartkemeyer’s religious-exercise claim, declining to delay Purkey’s execution until Rev. Hartkemeyer may safely attend.

“Despite their claim to be champions of religious freedom, Trump officials are willing to force Rev. Hartkemeyer to risk his health and life in order to minister to Mr. Purkey at his execution,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU. “Preventing Mr. Purkey’s longtime priest from performing his sacred religious duties is both unlawful and wrong.”

“The court’s decision to allow this execution to go forward tomorrow as planned will put hundreds of lives at risk,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Our client and hundreds of people — including the victim’s family members, nearly 100 members of the BOP team, reporters, and other witnesses — will flock to Terre Haute to participate in the taking of Wes Purkey’s life. In a moment when COVID-19 cases are spiking around the country and public health officials are all warning against unnecessary travel and large gatherings, this decision is not just disappointing — it’s dangerous. This is not the end: We plan to appeal this misguided decision.”

Rev. Hartkemeyer — who is 68 years old and has lung-related illnesses that make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 — has been designated as a witness to Purkey’s execution. Federal regulations mandate that such designated witnesses be present at the execution. The ACLU’s lawsuit charged that scheduling this execution now — and forcing Rev. Hartkemeyer to risk his health and life to perform his religious duties as Purkey’s priest — violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“It is a discouraging day in the U.S. legal system,” said Rev. Hartkemeyer, the plaintiff in this case. “I am far from the only person who will risk my life if I attend Wes’ execution tomorrow. The fact that so many people will risk their health so the government can kill a man should give us all pause.”

Today’s decision came from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In addition to Attorney General Barr, the complaint named Michael Carvajal, director of the Bureau of Prisons, and T.J. Watson, the warden of the Terre Haute federal correctional complex, as defendants.

The complaint is online, here.
A blog from Rev. Hartkemeyer is online, here.

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