Update: Priest joins suit, cites COVID in trying to halt federal execution

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (CNS) — A Benedictine priest asked by a death-row prisoner to minister to him prior to his execution has filed an intervention pleading to join a lawsuit to delay federal executions, contending the coronavirus emergency in Indiana puts him and others at risk of catching COVID-19 by attending the execution.

“I am devastated by the prospect of exposing myself and others to the risk of COVID-19 infection because the U.S. government chooses to execute Dustin (Honken) and others in the midst of this pandemic,” said Father Mark O’Keefe, 64, a moral theology professor at St. Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad, Indiana.

His comments came in an exhibit attached to the July 7 pleading filed at the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana in Terre Haute.

“He has agreed to risk life and limb, because of his sincerely held belief that he must be available to minister to Mr. Honken at his execution, including to offer Mr. Honken the sacraments that will enable him to seek salvation,” Father O’Keefe’s lawyers said in the filing.

Honken is scheduled to be executed July 17. Father O’Keefe is looking to join a suit filed earlier seeking to delay Honken’s execution and one other slated for that week; Daniel Lee on July 13.

A third inmate, Wesley Purkey, was to have been executed July 15 but he has received a temporary stay. The Indiana Lawyer, a daily publication, reported July 6 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has granted a temporary stay. The court ruled that two of three technical points raised by Purkey’s lawyer about the case deserve further examination.

These men would be the first federal prisoners put to death since 2003.

A Buddhist priest filed suit to delay another prisoner’s execution, also citing coronavirus fears. But that case would apply only to himself, and Father O’Keefe’s lawyers said that without the intervention, the appropriate judicial relief could come too late for Honken.

A meth trafficker, Honken received the death penalty for the 1993 execution-style slayings of two sisters, ages 10 and 6. He received three life sentences for the killings of their mother, as well as the murder of her boyfriend and another drug-dealing associate of Honken’s.

“Honken has been a sincere, practicing Catholic for more than 10 years. He attends Catholic Mass and receives Communion regularly; he receives Catholic ministry regularly; and he believes sincerely in the Catholic faith,” the intervention request said. But in mid-March, the federal Bureau of Prisons halted all visits to prisoners, including from friends and clergy.

After U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the execution dates June 15, spiritual advisers could visit the condemned prisoners, but no other inmates.

Father O’Keefe is Honken’s spiritual adviser, and he asked the priest to be at the execution. The request was approved July 5 by the Bureau of Prisons.

The priest’s intervention request noted that Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, on July 1, extended the state’s pandemic emergency until at least Aug. 3.

It argued that the federal government set Honken’s execution date “without considering the import of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the significant public health risks that proceeding with the execution in such an environment poses,” adding that an estimated 300 people, both visitors and prison employees, will have their routines altered that day to attend to execution-related matters within the prison.

The federal prison in Terre Haute where Honken is scheduled to be executed has already had a COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to his teaching duties, Father O’Keefe celebrates Mass daily for a convent of cloistered Carmelite nuns in Terre Haute. “Several of the nuns who attend daily Mass as a central part of their own religious practice are over the age of 60 and a few are over 80 years old,” putting them at increased COVID risk, the intervention request said.

The brief noted the long history of providing spiritual comfort to condemned prisoners, dating back to Jesus — at what Father O’Keefe called his “state-ordered execution” — telling the repentant criminal being crucified alongside him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The first known federal execution, in 1790, was preceded by “solemn religious exercises,” the intervention brief said. Nor did the criminal’s notoriety matter, it added; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for spying for the Soviet Union, had a rabbi minister to them before being put to death.