US executes intellectually impaired man suffering COVID-19

Trump and Corey Johnson.
Trump and Corey Johnson. Photo credit: Getty/supplied

The US government executed Corey Johnson, an intellectually impaired convicted murderer suffering from COVID-19, on Thursday night, marking one of the final two federal executions planned in the last few days of President Donald Trump's administration.

Johnson, 52, was convicted of murdering seven people in Virginia in 1992 as part of a drug-trafficking ring. Some of his victims' relatives could be heard clapping and cheering from a viewing room inside the US Department of Justice's death chamber at its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, after he was declared dead at 11:34 p.m., witnesses said.

In a separate viewing for Johnson's family, one of his brothers chanted "I love you, brother! I love you, brother!" over and over again, a witness said.

Johnson's execution went ahead several hours after it was scheduled when the US Supreme Court rejected a petition by his lawyers saying he was too intellectually disabled to be legally executed.

It is the 12thfederal execution since Trump, a Republican, resumed the punishment last year after a 17-year hiatus and amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened death row inmates, at least two of their lawyers, other prisoners, and members of the execution team and prison guards.

President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, says he will work to abolish the death penalty after he takes office next Wednesday.

The Supreme Court also declined to reinstate an order from a lower court delaying the execution of Johnson and Dustin Higgs, scheduled to be executed on Friday, to allow them to recover from COVID-19 after they contracted the novel coronavirus in December.

Johnson's lawyers said he could barely read or write and had an IQ within the 70-75 point threshold courts have used to determine "mental retardation", which precludes execution under the Federal Death Penalty Act. He was entitled to a court hearing on his disability, they said.

"Tonight, the government executed Corey Johnson, a person with intellectual disability, in stark violation of the Constitution and federal law," his lawyers said in a statement. "We loved Corey Johnson, and we knew him as a gentle soul who never broke a rule in prison and kept trying, despite his limitations, to pass the GED."

His victims' relatives declined to address the media, the Justice Department said.

COVID-19 appeal rejected

On Tuesday, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court ordered the executions be delayed until at least March 16 to allow the condemned men to heal, siding with medical experts who said their coronavirus-damaged lungs would result in inordinate suffering if they were to receive lethal injections. This would breach the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibiting "cruel and unusual" punishments, the lawyers argued.

A split panel of judges on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Chutkan's stay by 2-1.

"The Eighth Amendment 'does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death'," said the opinion, citing Supreme Court precedent.

Johnson had arranged to apologise to his victims in a dictated statement by his spiritual adviser, Rev Bill Breeden, a Unitarian minister who was at his side in the death chamber.

Breeden said afterwards that prison officials told him he was not allowed to read the statement.

When asked if he had any last words, Johnson initially appeared surprised and distracted, according to reports by a journalist serving as a media witness. "No, I'm OK," he said, still glancing around. He then gazed at the room meant for his family and softly said, "Love you."

Outside the prison gates, Breeden, by turns angry and tearful, said it was impossible for Johnson to read while strapped to a gurney.

He then read the statement, in which Johnson said he was sorry for his crimes, listed the names of his victims and asked that they be remembered, and thanked prison guards and his lawyers for being kind.

"The pizza and strawberry shake were wonderful, but I didn't get the jelly-filled donuts that I ordered," the statement said of his last meal. "What's with that? This should be fixed."

The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding Johnson's last words and meal.

"I am not the same man that I was," Johnson's statement said before concluding: "I am okay. I am at peace."