Three killings by the United States government

By Karen Burkhart, AIUSA Indiana State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator

I joined Amnesty International in the 1970’s while a moratorium existed on the death penalty in the US. States gradually adjusted their death penalty statues and executions resumed with the voluntary execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977.

As a member of Amnesty, I wrote many letters on death penalty cases in many countries. The experience working on the cases solidified my objection to any killings by government whether judicial or extrajudicial. Since that time, I have been active in Amnesty as both a group death penalty coordinator and a state death penalty coordinator. I have been to numerous vigils at prisons in Ohio and Indiana. I knew I would be at the vigils in Terre Haute when I found out federal executions were to resume last year.

Plans in Terre Haute

Since the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance values human life, we decided to encourage people to stay home and safe during the pandemic. People could join us virtually. Our local members would participate with mask wearing and social distancing. We would represent others unable to attend.

Press Conference

On Monday morning, July 13, a number of us who had gathered for a press conference detailed our concerns about the upcoming executions outside the Terre Haute Federal Petitionary. I discussed Amnesty’s position and pointed out all the efforts we were making to save lives through this pandemic. However, in the midst of these efforts to save lives came the shocking and violent killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, which reignited years of pain and anger against the systemic racism that disregards the value of Black lives. Americans, in general, believe no one has the right to take another person’s life. I wondered why then, is our federal government preparing to methodically kill four United States citizens this summer, beginning today. People and groups opposed to capital punishment like us are working to halt these executions. Whether or not we succeed, we must rid our country of this barbaric practice.

Vigil Execution of Daniel Lewis Lee

At 3:00 pm we gathered at a funeral home and walked to the location on US 41 for our protest and following vigil. The location is a particularly busy traffic location. Many people honked in support of our efforts, but others yelled out desires for revenge. Our federal government was planning to kill in my name. Most countries today do not execute their own. How can we think we live in the “greatest nation” in the world if we continue to kill our own people? When we continue to need vengeance? How can we “make America great again”? Mr. President. Abolish the death penalty. Stop the killing.

After midnight, I thought there was no possibility an execution would occur, as the date was set for July 13, and that date had passed. In addition, there was a stay. You can only imagine my bewilderment when Mr. Lee was executed at 8:24 am on July 14. Bill Breeden, a longtime abolitionist friend, informed me. He stood alone, across the street from the prison, bearing silent witness, which is our tradition at the time of death. I was ashamed that I wasn’t there for Mr. Lee, but more importantly ashamed that the present federal administration seems to have gone beyond the law to execute him.

Execution of Wesley Ira Purkey

Here was another execution, a day following the execution of Mr. Lee. Again we gathered on US 41 at 3:00 pm to protest and then vigil on behalf of Mr. Purkey. We still hoped the federal government would be unable to execute this man, who had significant claims of being unable to understand why he was being executed. His execution was stayed and rescheduled for 8:00 pm. A little before 8:00 pm, we held a silent witness. I kept in my thoughts the victim’s family and friends, Mr. Purkey, Mr. Purkey’s family, the members of the penitentiary, the lawyers, and all of us, being brutalized by this unnecessary taking of life. We were informed of another stay and left because of the strong conviction our government would be in violation of the 8th amendment if they executed him. Again the administration seems to have overreached the law and executed him the next morning.

Execution of Dustin Lee Honken

By Friday, the hope for a stay I had earlier significantly diminished. Standing by US 41, after tolling the bell for Dustin Lee Honken, I focused on the horror being enacted. I wasn’t standing there for myself alone, but for all my sisters and brothers fighting to end executions. Our silence was not of acquiescence but of dissent. Our silence was of deep distress for the violence in our society and our government’s appalling part in this violence. Our silence was a rejection of judicial killing in our name. We were not there because we are “soft on crime”, but because we are strong on the ultimate value of human life.

Redoubling Efforts

On my way home on Friday after the execution of Dustin Lee Honken, I vowed to redouble my efforts to end the death penalty. What are you planning to do to help end capital punishment?