WASHINGTON – The Trump administration executed Corey Johnson Thursday for a series of seven murders in 1992. He was the 12th federal inmate killed under President Trump.
Mr. Johnson committed the murders in the Richmond, Virginia area to sponsor a drug company that traded large quantities of cocaine. His crimes included shooting a rival drug dealer with a semi-automatic gun, killing a woman who had not paid for crack cocaine, and shooting a man at close range who Mr Johnson suspected was collaborating with the police.
Johnson, 52, was pronounced dead at 11:34 p.m. at the federal correctional complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Bureau of Prisons said.
When asked by an executioner if he had any last words, Mr. Johnson replied, according to a report by an attending journalist: “No, I’m fine”. A few seconds later he said quietly, “I love you,” and looked at a room that was reserved for members of his family.
In a statement released by a spokesman for his defense team, Mr Johnson apologized to the families who had been victims of his actions and listed the names of the seven murder victims to remember them.
“On the street, I was looking for short cuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid,” he said. “I’m not the same man as me.”
Mr. Johnson thanked the chaplain, his minister, his legal team, and the special forces staff. He noted that “the pizza and strawberry shake were wonderful,” but that he never received the jelly-filled donuts he ordered, a reference to his latest meal request. “What about it?” he added. “This should be fixed.”
Mr Johnson tested positive for coronavirus last month shortly after the government planned his execution during a federal death row outbreak at Terre Haute prison. At least 22 of the men on death row there tested positive, lawyers for the detainees and others with knowledge of their cases said. Madeline Cohen, who represents two of the men, said she knew of 33 cases.
In a request to delay Mr Johnson’s execution, his lawyers said the virus caused significant lung damage. They argued that his execution would violate the prohibition of the Eighth Amendment for Cruel and Unusual Punishment, as he could feel asphyxiating or drowning if killed by the federal government’s method using a single drug, pentobarbital. Instead, his lawyers suggested, Mr. Johnson could be executed by a firing squad or the Bureau of Prisons could give an analgesic anesthetic before injecting pentobarbital.
In particular, Mr Johnson’s attorneys argued that the combination of the coronavirus and the government’s lethal injection protocol would “put him particularly at risk of developing pulmonary edema while still sensitive”. Flash pulmonary edema, where fluid quickly builds up in the lungs, has been at the center of some challenges for the federal government’s execution protocol. The courts largely ignored these claims.
But for a moment it seemed like the coronavirus was giving Mr. Johnson a respite. A judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia suspended the execution of Mr. Johnson, and another execution was scheduled for Friday through at least March. Shortly thereafter, a jury from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the order.
Along with another judge on the jury, Judge Gregory G. Katsas of the Court of Appeal cited the Supreme Court precedent that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death – something that, of course, is not guaranteed to many people. ‘”
In a filing to the Supreme Court, the government contrasted its fatal injection protocol with hanging death, claiming that hanging could create a choking hazard that would last several minutes. Even if coronavirus infections made executions of prisoners more painful, the government argued, the “short duration of pain,” which is most likely measured in seconds or two minutes at most, would be far less than that of inmates who were hung by hanging.
Mr Johnson “is a convicted serial killer who has murdered and maimed several people on various occasions, and whose victims included innocent bystanders,” the government said on a separate file with the Supreme Court. “Their families have waited decades for the sentence to be carried out and are currently in Terre Haute, Indiana for execution.”
A majority in the Supreme Court joined the government in denying Mr Johnson’s petitions for redress.
Mr Johnson’s lawyers also attempted to question his execution by claiming he was mentally retarded, which made them illegal.
His claims of intellectual disability were rejected on the grounds that an IQ of 77 was considered too high to deserve a diagnosis, his lawyers said. However, they argued that the results of other IQ tests and an adapted version of the same score indicated that he was classified as mentally retarded.
The Justice Department, however, denied these claims, claiming that the murders were planned and not impulsive acts by someone unable to make calculated judgments. For example, when the drug organization was operating in Trenton, New Jersey, Mr Johnson hit people with a metal bat to protect the company, the government said.
Attorneys for another man who was executed by the Trump administration – Alfred Bourgeois in December – also argued that their client was mentally retarded. In both cases, a majority in the Supreme Court rejected the prisoners’ claims.
Two of Mr. Johnson’s attorneys still claimed that their client lacked the ability to be the drug king as portrayed by the government. In a statement, they said he could barely read or write, struggled with basic tasks of daily life and was “a devotee desperate for approval, support and guidance”.
“No court has ever held a hearing to examine the overwhelming evidence of Mr. Johnson’s intellectual disability,” said attorneys Donald P. Salzman and Ronald J. Tabak. “And the trial of grace has not played its historic role in protecting against violations of due process and the rule of law.”
Mr Johnson was convicted of seven capital murders in 1993, including drug trafficking and violence. His lawyers unsuccessfully argued that he should be given some redress under the First Step Act, a bill signed by Mr Trump that included reduced sentences for certain drug offenders.
Two other people involved in the plot – Richard Tipton and James Roane – who jointly trafficked large quantities of cocaine in the Richmond area in the early 1990s, were also sentenced to death.
Mr Tipton and Mr Roane will remain in federal prison in Terre Haute. The Justice Department did not plan their executions.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose term begins Wednesday, has signaled his opposition to the federal death penalty, making their executions unlikely to happen anytime soon. Mr Biden is committed to working through his criminal justice platform to pass federal death penalty laws.
The Trump administration plans to execute its last inmate, Dustin J. Higgs, on Friday. Mr. Higgs was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of three women in Maryland. If his attorneys are unsuccessful in their appeals and Mr. Trump grants no mercy, Mr. Higgs’ death will be the 13th federal execution in just over six months and the third this week. Lisa M. Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, was killed Wednesday.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of prisoners under federal death sentences has fallen about 20 percent since July due to the flood of executions carried out by the Trump administration. This month, the administration resumed the use of the federal death penalty after a 17-year hiatus.