The U.S. is Set to Execute a Man with Schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. He Won't Even Know Why | Opinion

On July 15, the federal government plans to execute Wesley Purkey, a 68-year-old man with multiple brain disorders, including Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. The law is clear. Under the Constitution, an execution can only be carried out when the prisoner understands why he is being executed. Mr. Purkey believes his death is punishment, not for his crime, but for his frequent complaints against prison officials over prison conditions. In a lawsuit filed last November, Mr. Purkey's attorneys point to evidence of decades of delusional behavior and rapidly progressing dementia. An expert who examined Mr. Purkey concluded that his dementia and mental illness have progressed to the point that he is incapable of rationally understanding the reason for his execution. Though that is what the law requires, the Government is rushing forward with his execution, while withholding critical medical records and without giving the courts time to hold a hearing.

Institutionalized on and off from age 14, Mr. Purkey has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, brain damage, and bipolar disorder. Records reveal decades of paranoid delusions, similar to those he suffers from today. These include elaborate conspiracies involving FBI plots and repeated beliefs that family members were poisoning him. Once he was admitted to the emergency room after claiming that his house was wired and that people on the roof were spraying a poisonous mist into his room that could be "activated by a beam." Another time he called the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to report that drug dealers had planted something in his chest and were trying to kill him with chemicals in the ceiling and the vents. On another occasion, he tore out the insulation from his home because he thought the FBI installed cameras in it.

While on death row, Mr. Purkey's paranoia and delusions have worsened as his dementia has progressed. For nearly a decade, he has filed countless complaints against prison staff accusing them of putting poison and feces in his food, urinating on his laundry, and forcing him to live in a cell "caked in feces." Mr. Purkey firmly believes in these conspiracies and sees any evidence to the contrary as manufactured to cover-up the truth.

Mr. Purkey has long been remorseful for the crime that put him on federal death row. But as his Alzheimer's and delusions have progressed, he no longer understands why the government plans to execute him. Whether someone is competent to be executed cannot legally or logically be determined without a review of the evidence and testimony of a medical professional. Most states with the death penalty have a clear set of procedures to address a prisoner's competence to be executed. The federal government, however, has no such process. Mr. Purkey's attorneys have filed a lawsuit requesting a hearing on his competency and seeking to obtain critical medical records the government refuses to turn over. The federal district court in Washington, D.C., has yet to rule on these requests.

Notably, the federal government announced Mr. Purkey's execution date in June, the month dedicated to raising awareness about Alzheimer's and brain disease. Alzheimer's disease is marked by progressive memory loss and deteriorated cognitive abilities, including memory loss and inability to carry on a conversation.

Alzheimer's progresses rapidly; most diagnosed with it die within three to eight years. That decline may be even swifter for Mr. Purkey, because he has multiple types of dementia and because of substandard medical care in prison. Mr. Purkey's Alzheimer's has left him not only unable to understand the reason for his execution, but unable to remember significant events and names of the most important people in his life.

Acknowledging Mr. Purkey's lack of mental competence to be executed does not excuse his crime, nor should it be taken as an erasure of the irreparable pain, suffering, and loss to his victim's family, which they surely continue to experience. Indeed, no matter what, Mr. Purkey will die in prison.

Our system of justice demands that mindless vengeance not be the focus of punishment. At a time when Americans are grappling with many inequities in our society, including gross deficiencies in the ways we handle mental health issues, Wes Purkey's scheduled execution should offend all of our senses of decency.

The federal courts must step in now to prevent this unconstitutional execution from taking place.

Ron Honberg, J.D. is the Former Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

[Editor's Note: Purkey faces execution because he confessed to abducting, raping and murdering a minor—a confession made while he was serving time in state prison for bludgeoning an 80-year-old paralytic to death with a claw hammer.]