Cory Johnson was pronounced dead after being executed Jan. 14, and Dustin John Higgs was killed two days later, at the federal death-row prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Their executions mean the U.S. government has put to death 13 federal inmates since July. In both cases the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 reversing a lower court stay of execution.
Johnson was diagnosed as “intellectually disabled” and therefore should have been exempt from the death penalty. After living in 12 different homes before the age of 13, he was sent to a facility for children with intellectual and emotional disabilities. He was held back in second grade for three years, and repeated third and fourth grades as well.
“If Johnson’s death sentence is carried out today, the United States will execute an intellectually disabled person, which is unconstitutional,” U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn wrote in dissent when the Richmond, Virginia, court voted 8 to 7 against hearing an appeal by Johnson. It wasn’t until 2002 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to bar executions of people with mental disability.
Johnson had been sentenced to death along with two other members of a Virginia crack-cocaine gang accused of killing 11 people.
At his execution, Johnson “seemed surprised” when asked if he had any last words. “No, I’m OK,” he said. In his final statement released by lawyers Johnson listed the victims by name and said, “I want these names to be remembered.
“I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes,” he added. “I wanted to say that to the families who were victimized by my actions.” He wrote a note that he was unhappy he wasn’t given the jelly doughnuts he asked for with his last meal. “This should be fixed,” he said.
Higgs executed two days later
Higgs was convicted in 1996 of fatally shooting three women on federal wildlife land in Prince George’s County, Maryland, after a dispute at a party. But a friend with him that day who is serving a life sentence, Willis Haynes, has admitted to killing the women, saying that Higgs did not “order him to do it,” as the prosecution claimed.
“What are courts to do when faced with legal questions of this kind? Are they simply to ignore them? Or are they, as in this case, to ‘hurry up, hurry up’?” Supreme Court Judge Stephen Breyer, who voted to postpone the execution, wrote. “That is no solution. Higgs’ case illustrates this dilemma.”
Higgs’ last words before his execution were, “I am not responsible for the deaths. I did not order the murders.”
Even though both Johnson and Higgs had COVID-19, the Supreme Court refused to postpone their executions. Higgs also had asthma. Because of potential coronavirus lung damage, the lethal injection of pentobarbital put them at greater risk of pulmonary edema, tantamount to waterboarding.
“Even if [Johnson and Higgs] were correct that their prior COVID infection would make their executions more painful, the brief duration of pain they assert — likely measured in seconds, and at most around two minutes — is still far less than the ‘suffocation, which could take several minutes’ endured by inmates executed by hanging,” the government argued. Two million people signed a clemency petition for Higgs.
Three dozen protesters gathered across from the Terre Haute prison to oppose Higgs’ execution Jan. 15, as they have during earlier executions.
The director of Death Penalty Action, Abraham Bonowitz, who helped organize the protest, invited participants to speak. Rodrick Reed, brother of Texas death-row inmate Rodney Reed, encouraged participants to keep building protests against capital punishment. “We’ve got to get everyone involved,” he said.
“Executions are used as a brutal tool of punishment by the rulers against the working class. It’s possible to change this,” said Samir Hazboun, from Louisville, Kentucky, speaking for the Socialist Workers Party. “But no government run by the capitalist ruling class will do this for us. No matter which capitalist party is in power the use of the death penalty has to end.”
Though no further federal executions are yet set for 2021, eight are due in Texas, Alabama and Ohio.