Corey Johnson, 52, was federally executed by lethal injection on Thursday
The death sentence of convicted murderer Corey Johnson has been carried out, in what is set to the penultimate federal execution of President Donald Trump’s term.
Johnson, 52, was pronounced dead at 11.34pm on Thursday following lethal injection with pentobarbital at the U.S. Department of Justice’s execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Johnson was convicted of murdering seven people in Virginia in 1992 as part of a drug-trafficking ring. His lawyers argue he had an intellectual disability that means it was unconstitutional to execute him.
Strapped to the gurney in the death chamber, when he was asked if he had any last words, Johnson appeared surprised and distracted, focusing on a room to his left designated for members of his family.
Still glancing around, he responded to the question, ‘No. I’m OK.’ Several seconds later, he said softly while gazing intently at same room, ‘Love you.’
Officials moved forward with the death sentence just minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court denied emergency motions to stay the execution, clearing the final legal obstacles.
In a final statement provided by his lawyer, Johnson apologized for his crimes and said he had a ‘wonderful’ last meal of pizza and a strawberry milkshake, but complained, seemingly in jest, that he did not get the jelly-filled donuts he asked for.
A file photo shows the interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute. Johnson was strapped to the gurney and injected with pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate
‘I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes,’ he said in the statement. ‘I would have said I was sorry before, but I didn’t know how.’
Johnson listed the names of his seven victims, saying he wanted them to be remembered. They are: Louis Johnson, Anthony Carter, Dorothy Armstrong, Curtis Thorne, Linwood Chiles, Peyton Johnson, and Bobby Long.
‘On the streets, I was looking for shortcuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid,’ Johnson said in the statement. ‘I am not the same man that I was.’
Johnson thanked his family, the ‘kind’ staff on federal death row, the chaplain, his minister and his legal team.
His only complaint was about the jelly donuts, and it appeared to be in jest. ‘The pizza and strawberry shake were wonderful, but I didn’t get the jelly-filled donuts that [I] ordered. What’s with that? This should be fixed,’ he said.
Johnson’s lawyers have said the IQ score of 77 that was presented at his 1993 trial was incorrect, and his real IQ is even lower, within the range of 70-75 threshold courts have used to determine intellectual disability.
In a statement, Johnson’s lawyers denied he had the mental capacity to be a drug kingpin, and said the government had executed a man ‘with an intellectual disability, in stark violation of the Constitution and federal law.’
Johnson, who was convicted of killing seven people in Virginia in 1992, was executed on Thursday at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana
Abe Bonowitz, co-director of Death Penalty Action, talks about the efforts to stop the death penalty during the protest of the execution of Corey Johnson on Thursday in Terre Haute
‘The government’s arbitrary rush to execute Mr. Johnson, who was categorically ineligible for execution due to his significant impairments, rested on procedural technicalities rather than any serious dispute that he was intellectually disabled,’ the lawyers said.
After an appeals court struck down a stay on his execution this week, Johnson had originally been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6pm EST on Thursday.
U.S. Supreme Court rejected the final challenge on Thursday, striking down a night a lower court’s ruling that Johnson’s execution and another be delayed to allow the condemned men to recover from COVID-19.
Their lawyers had argued that the infection had damaged their lungs, and would make death by lethal injection painful in violation of Constitutional bans on ‘cruel’ punishment.
The federal execution of Dustin Higgs (above) is scheduled for Friday
The Justice Department has scheduled the execution of Dustin Higgs, convicted in a separate murder, for Friday evening.
His lawyers are also challenging his execution on other legal grounds besides his COVID-19 diagnosis, but the Supreme Court has so far allowed all executions to proceed since Trump resumed the practice last year after a 17-hiatus.
Lawyers have previously argued the lethal injections of pentobarbital caused flash pulmonary edema, where fluid rapidly fills the lungs, sparking sensations akin to drowning. The new claim was that fluid would rush into the inmates´ COVID-damaged lungs immediately while they were still conscious.
President-elect Joe Biden opposes the death penalty, and federal executions are expected to halt after he takes office next week.
Johnson’s crimes: Seven victims brutally killed in spree of gang violence that was unmatched in its time
Johnson was implicated in one of the worst bursts of gang violence Richmond, Virginia had ever seen, with 11 people killed in a 45-day period.
He and two other members of the Newtowne gang were sentenced to death under a federal law that targets large-scale drug traffickers.
‘In early 1992, Johnson went on a killing spree, shooting and killing each of the seven victims for perceived slights or rivalry in the drug trade,’ the DOJ said in a statement.
Johnson shot one victim at close range after ordering him to place his head on a car steering wheel, prosecutors say.
In a shocking triple-murder, Johnson shot and killed a man at the victim’s home when he failed to pay for crack cocaine — and then Johnson also murdered the victim’s sister and a male acquaintance.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Vick Jr., one of the prosecutors in the case, said the violence committed by Johnson and his fellow gang members was unmatched at the time.
One of the gang´s victims was stabbed 85 times and another was shot 16 times. Johnson was convicted of being the shooter in a triple slaying, and participating in four other capital murders, including shooting a rival drug dealer 15 times.
‘The heinousness of the crimes, the utter senselessness of the crimes, the crimes themselves warranted the seeking of the death penalty this case,’ Vick said.
Anti-death penalty activists hold signs as they protest the execution of Corey Johnson, near the Federal Correctional Complex on Thursday in Terre Haute
A defense psychologist testified during the trial that Johnson´s IQ was measured at 77, above the threshold score of 75 then needed to label someone as intellectually disabled. Johnson´s appellate lawyers say that psychologist was not an expert in intellectual disability and relied on standards that are now outdated.
C.T. Woody Jr., the lead homicide detective on the case, said that during his interrogations of Johnson, he denied any involvement in the killings and said police were trying to frame him because of lies people were telling about him.
‘It did not seem to me that he had any kind of mental problems at all except his viciousness and no respect for human life – none whatsoever,’ Woody said.
However, defense attorneys argued that Johnson was intellectually disabled and unfit for execution.
Richard Benedict, who was Johnson´s special education teacher at a New York school for emotionally troubled kids, said Johnson was hyperactive, anxious and reading and writing at a second- or third-grade level when he was 16 and 17.
‘I had to have someone walk him to the bathroom because he just couldn´t get back to the classroom,’ Benedict said.
Government filings have spelled Johnson´s name ‘Cory,’ but his lawyers say he spells it ‘Corey.’
Johnson has been on federal death row since his 1993 trial. Above, the sun sets on USP Terre Haute, the location of federal death row, in a file photo
In their clemency petition, Johnson’s lawyers asked Trump to commute his death sentence to life in prison.
They described a traumatic childhood in which he was physically abused by his drug-addicted mother and her boyfriends, abandoned at age 13, then shuffled between residential and institutional facilities until he aged out of the foster care system.
They cited numerous childhood IQ tests discovered after he was sentenced that place him in the mentally disabled category and say testing during his time in prison shows he can read and write at only an elementary school level.
In his clemency petition, Johnson´s lawyers said he has repeatedly expressed ‘sincere remorse’ for his crimes.
During his sentencing hearing, Johnson spoke to a group of students present in the courtroom that day and urged them not to commit crimes or make the mistakes he had made in his life.
‘I’m sorry for the great number of people who are dead, you know, and there is a lot on us,’ he said at the hearing. ‘I feel we are no angels.’