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New Filing: Catholic Priest Should Not Have To Risk Life, Health to Perform Last Rites for Dustin Honken at Scheduled July 17 Federal Execution

(Indianapolis, IN) Citing his age, the large number of people with whom he must be in regular contact due to his priestly duties, and the current surge in COVID-19 cases, Father Mark O’Keefe asked to join a lawsuit seeking to delay the federal executions scheduled for the week of July 13, due to the serious and unnecessary virus risk created by attending those executions. 

Father O’Keefe, who is 64 years old, is a Catholic priest and the designated spiritual advisor to death row prisoner Dustin Honken, whose execution has been set for July 17. The Bureau of Prison has authorized Father O’Keefe to attend to the execution as Mr. Honken’s spiritual advisor. But, the new filing explains, fulfilling this sacred religious obligation would place Father O’Keefe at grave risk of contracting COVID-19 and potentially life-threatening complications, and of spreading the virus to others in the course of his ministry to clergy, citizens, and prisoners in the greater Terre Haute area, many of whom are themselves at increased risk of serious complications.

Father O’Keefe’s intervenor complaint is available here:

Memorandum in support of Father O'Keefe's complaint is available here:

The complaint filed on behalf of Rev. Hartkemeyer last week is available here:

With today’s filing, Father O’Keefe seeks to delay Mr. Honken’s execution until after the pandemic risk has abated. He seeks to join a lawsuit filed on July 2 on behalf of Reverend Seigen Hartkemeyer, a Buddhist priest who is the longtime spiritual advisor to Wesley Purkey, scheduled for execution on July 15. Like Father O’Keefe, Rev. Hartkemeyer is religiously obligated to attend Mr. Purkey’s execution, and like Father O’Keefe, doing so would put his health and life at severe risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Honken’s execution is the third of three that the government has scheduled over the course of just five days next week, despite the global pandemic and rapidly spreading cases throughout the U.S., in Indiana, and in the federal prison system. If carried out, these will be the first federal executions in 17 years.

As asserted in Mr. Purkey’s lawsuit, the executions threaten to become “super-spreader events” for COVID-19: Each execution will require the travel and congregation of hundreds of people, including correctional officers, local and national media, legal counsel from around the country, witnesses, victims’ family members, and others. The United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, where Mr. Honken’s execution is also set to take place, is currently dealing with COVID-19 infections among the prisoners.

“The First Amendment protects Father O’Keefe’s right to practice religion. Forcing him to risk deadly Covid to provide last rites to a death row inmate, cynically infringes on the rights of both priest and penitent,” said Edward C. Wallace, co-chair of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office and attorney for Father O’Keefe. “Attorney General Barr should halt this dash to execute inmates in the middle of a pandemic forcing the clergy to choose ministry over health.”  

Father O’Keefe’s complaint cites the long history of allowing condemned prisoners to receive ministerial support before and during executions, and the importance to his own religious practice of fulfilling his obligation to minister to Mr. Honken. He argues that by forcing him into the untenable choice between ministering to Mr. Honken and protecting his own health and the lives and health of others to whom he ministers, the government is violating federal statutes protecting religious free exercise. Given that the Trump Administration purports to strongly support religious freedom, and the absence of any compelling reason for carrying out federal executions right now, Father O’Keefe asks the court to require a delay until a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 is available.

As Father O’Keefe and Rev. Hartkemeyer are challenging the federal executions as burdening their religious exercise, on July 1, 2020, eight Catholic bishops in Iowa sent a letter to President Trump asking him to commute Dustin Honken’s federal death sentence. That letter can be accessed here:

In addition, today, a group of more than 1,000 U.S. religious leaders called on President Trump and Attorney General Barr to delay the scheduled federal executions:

"As our country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions," the leaders from various Christian faiths said in a statement released today. The statement can be accessed here:; media coverage of the statement by the Catholic News Service can be accessed here:  

For more information, or to speak to an attorney, please contact: Joey Kaiser, 212-801-6983