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Former Richmond gang member set for execution next week files appeal, citing intellectual disability

Former Richmond gang member set for execution next week files appeal, citing intellectual disability

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A former Richmond gang member sentenced to death in 1993 is asking the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of execution, citing his claims of an intellectual disability.

Cory Johnson, 55, is facing execution by federal authorities Jan. 14 for seven murders committed in Richmond in 1992 when he was part of the deadly Newtowne crack cocaine gang that killed at least 11 people — many perceived as snitches — in a 45-day period.

The federal government had not executed anyone for 17 years until last year, when the Trump administration began carrying out death sentences. There were 10 executions last year and three set for this month. Johnson’s execution is scheduled for less than a week before President-elect Joe Biden, a death penalty opponent, takes office.

“Corey Johnson’s trial was one of the first federal capital trials in the modern era and the very first where mental retardation was at issue,” his lawyers argue in a 19-page motion filed Friday with the Richmond-based appeals court.

In a decision reached after Johnson’s 1993 federal trial in Richmond, Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of people found to be intellectually disabled.

“He was tried before Atkins was decided and well before any federal standards or procedures were developed. The testimony in 1993 that Mr. Johnson was not a person with intellectual disability was reached without the current understanding in the medical and legal community of what constitutes intellectual disability and without an accurate or complete picture of his intellectual functioning, based on, among other evidence, valid, properly adjusted IQ scores,” his lawyers argue in the stay request.

Last week, a lower court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to consider Johnson’s intellectual disability claim.

Johnson, who now has COVID-19, also is asking a federal judge in Washington to delay the execution, alleging that the lethal injection protocol used by the federal government could lead to cruel and unusual punishment for someone whose lungs have been damaged by the coronavirus.

A clemency petition also is pending. Johnson’s lawyers said The Arc, which advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, sent a letter to President Trump supporting the clemency request.

In a statement Friday, his lawyers said, “Three of the country’s leading intellectual disability experts have evaluated Corey, reviewed his extensive records, and applied accepted diagnostic criteria to determine that he is a person with intellectual disability. Allowing Corey to be executed would be a grave miscarriage of justice.”

Among other things, they said Johnson’s records include an IQ score of 69 when he was 16 years old; he repeated both the second and third grades; he could not name all the months of the year when he was 13; and he struggled to learn tasks like tying his shoes.

Johnson was sentenced to death with two other gang members in a 1993 trial in U.S. District Court in Richmond. The three former gang members are the longest-serving inmates remaining on federal death row.

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