US executes man with COVID-19, marking 12th federal execution under Trump

The Trump administration executed Corey Johnson by lethal injection on Thursday. Johnson was convicted for a series of seven murders committed in 1992 and became the twelfth federal inmate put to death since July.

The execution followed two separate appeals by Johnson’s attorneys for a stay of execution. In the first appeal they argued that Johnson could not be executed under the Federal Death Penalty Act because of an intellectual disability resulting from a low IQ and childhood abuse. They also argued that Johnson could seek re-sentencing of his death sentence under the First Step Act. After the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied the petition on Tuesday, the Supreme Court also rejected the petition for certiorari, with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting.

In a second appeal filed together with Dustin Higgs, who is scheduled for execution on Friday, the inmates’ attorneys argued that their executions should be stayed because of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Higgs and Johnson had both contracted COVID-19 and their attorneys cited medical testimony in support of their claim that since the prisoners’ lungs had not fully recovered from the virus yet, executing them would result in a flash pulmonary edema, which medical experts had called one of the “most powerful, excruciating feelings known to man” by producing sensations akin to waterboarding “which is … a form of torture.” The Supreme Court again denied the petition, this time with Justice Stephen Breyer joining Sotomayor and Kagan in dissent.

Johnson committed the murders in Richmond, Virginia, in furtherance of his drug trafficking operations that included dealing large amounts of cocaine. His murders included shooting a rival drug dealer with a semiautomatic weapon, killing a woman who had failed to pay for crack cocaine, and killing a man Johnson suspected of working with police. In a final statement issued by his attorneys Johnson expressed his remorse over his actions:

I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes, I wanted to say that to the families who were victimized by my actions, and I want [the victims’] names to be remembered. … I would have said I was sorry before, but I didn’t know how. I hope you will find peace.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons Johnson was pronounced dead at 11:34 PM at a federal facility in Indiana. He was 52 years old and may be the last federal execution for some time, given President-Elect Biden’s plan to eliminate the death penalty.