Washington          -        A US District Court judge on Wednesday blocked the scheduled execution of a convicted murderer after his lawyers claimed he is suffering from dementia and does not know why he is to be put to death.

Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, of Kansas, had been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Wednesday at Terre Haute prison in the midwestern state of Indiana.

Purkey was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape, murder and dismemberment of a 16-year-old girl, Jennifer Long. He was also found guilty of beating an 80-year-old woman to death with a hammer. Purkey’s lawyers have sought to prevent his execution by arguing that he was mentally impaired and unable to understand why he was to be executed.

“Wes Purkey is a 68-year old, severely brain-damaged and mentally ill man who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” said Rebecca Woodman, one of his attorneys.

“Though he has long accepted responsibility for his crime, he no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him,” Woodman said. US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan blocked Purkey’s execution to allow for a hearing on his mental competency and her order was upheld by a US Court of Appeals.

The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court in a bid to pave the way for the execution.  President Donald Trump last month ordered a resumption of federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and Purkey would be the second federal inmate executed this week if the Supreme Court gives the green light.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, a former white supremacist convicted of the 1996 murders of a family of three, was put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday at the same Indiana prison where Purkey is scheduled to die. Another federal inmate, Dustin Lee Honken, 52, is to be executed on Friday for five murders including those of two girls aged 10 and six.

The death penalty was reinstated on the federal level in 1988 but had been used on only three occasions before the execution of Lee, the last time in 2003.

More than 1,000 US religious leaders urged Trump last week to abandon plans to resume federal executions.

Trump, who faces a tough reelection battle in November, has called for stepped-up use of capital punishment, especially for drug traffickers and killers of police officers.

Only a handful of US states, mainly in the conservative South, still actively carry out executions. In 2019, 22 people were put to death.

Most crimes are tried under state laws, but federal courts handle some of the most serious offenses, including terror attacks, hate crimes and racketeering cases.

Among the most notable recent federal executions was that of Timothy McVeigh, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2001 for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma that killed 168 people.