After failed eleventh-hour appeals, Cory Johnson was executed by injection late Thursday night for the murders of seven people in Richmond in 1992.
Johnson, 52, a member of the Newtowne crack cocaine gang, was put to death at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, in Indiana. Scheduled for 6 p.m., the execution was delayed while he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Associated Press reported he was pronounced dead at 11:34 p.m.
“I’m glad that it’s over. May he rest in peace,” said C.T. Woody, the former longtime Richmond homicide detective who investigated Johnson and his gang, leading in 1993 to his death sentence and those of two other gang members who remain on federal death row.
Woody said, “It’s been a long time coming. I do believe that justice has been served.”
Woody, who was not at Johnson’s execution, has attended several others in Virginia. The last one was that of Christopher Goins, who was executed in 2000 for murdering five members of his girlfriend’s family.
“I finally realized at that time that I no longer believed in the death penalty. It’s not a deterrent. People are still killing each other,” said Woody, who later was elected the Richmond sheriff. “There’s a lot of suffering on both sides, the families of the victims as well as his family.”
According to the government, surviving family members of victims were on hand at the prison Thursday to witness the execution.
The Associated Press reported that when Johnson was asked if he had any last words, he appeared surprised and distracted, focusing on a room to his left designated for members of his family. He responded to the question, “No. I’m OK.” Several seconds later, he said softly while gazing intently at the same room, “Love you.”
Johnson’s lawyers, Donald P. Salzman and Ronald J. Tabak, said in a statement, “We wish also to say that the fact Corey Johnson should never have been executed cannot diminish the pain and loss experienced by the families of the victims in this case. We wish them peace and healing.”
They painted a different portrait of Johnson than the government. “Corey simply lacked the capacity to operate as the ‘drug kingpin’ the government falsely portrayed him as for nearly 30 years.
“He could barely read or write, he struggled with basic tasks of daily living, and was — like many with intellectual disability — a follower, desperate for approval, support, and guidance,” they said.
They added, “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 Bureau of Prisons and many court documents refer to Johnson as “Cory.” His attorneys and others use the spelling “Corey.”
He was executed less than a week before President Donald Trump will leave office and President-elect Joe Biden, a death penalty opponent, is sworn in.
The Trump administration resumed federal executions last year after a 17-year hiatus. A dozen people have now been executed since July with one more, Dustin Higgs, 48, set for Friday.
Earlier Thursday, in an 8-7 vote, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rehear Johnson’s appeal that was based in part on Johnson’s claimed intellectual disability.
In his dissent, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote, “Newly available evidence convincingly demonstrates that his old IQ score is incorrect and that he is intellectually disabled under current diagnostic standards. But no court has ever considered such evidence. If Johnson’s death sentence is carried out today, the United States will execute an intellectually disabled person, which is unconstitutional.”
“In sum, Johnson should be afforded an opportunity to have his meritorious claims properly considered and to vindicate his rights. And contrary to the Government, he is not making a ‘last-minute’ attempt to unduly delay his execution. He has timely pursued his challenges,” Wynn wrote.
The 4th Circuit also rejected a stay request on a claim that Johnson’s original execution order was void because the judge who modified it in 2005 did not have the authority to do so.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington granted a stay of execution until at least March for Johnson and Higgs.
Both men had COVID-19, and the judge cited the possibility that lethal injection could lead to a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment due to their damaged lungs.
Experts for the death row inmates said pentobarbital, the drug used in executions, could cause “flash pulmonary edema,” a condition similar to waterboarding, while they are still conscious. Government witnesses gave conflicting opinions.
However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia tossed out the stay late Wednesday, and on Thursday afternoon the full Court of Appeals declined to hold a rehearing.
The appeals court losses led Johnson to the U.S. Supreme Court to seek an emergency stay of execution, but the justices turned down his requests in split votes.
Responding to Johnson and Higgs’ appeal Thursday evening, the government wrote to the justices: “Applicants were collectively convicted of 10 murders and received 16 death sentences for federal crimes committed decades ago.”
“Corey Johnson ‘is a brutal serial killer’ who murdered at least seven people ‘as an enforcer for a large-scale narcotics operation’ in 1992. ... Dustin Higgs in 1996 kidnapped three women after a failed triple date, drove them onto federal land, and handed his gun to a co-conspirator who shot them dead — a crime for which Higgs received nine death sentences,” the government wrote.
The Department of Justice added, “Numerous family members of Johnson’s victims have traveled to Terre Haute to witness his execution today for the murder of their loved ones nearly three decades ago.”
In vacating the COVID-19 stay issued Tuesday, Judge Gregory G. Katsas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote, “The record contains only conjecture on whether a lethal injection of pentobarbital would cause any edema before rendering the prisoner insensate.”
Katsas wrote, “They have had ample opportunity to file clemency petitions. And the Supreme Court repeatedly has stressed that the public has a ‘powerful and legitimate interest in punishing the guilty’ ... which includes ‘an important interest in the timely enforcement of a [death] sentence.’”
Judge Cornelia Pillard dissented. “The government insists that these final scheduled executions must proceed as planned. It fails to explain why they must take place this week. To be sure, the Supreme Court has emphasized that ‘[l]ast-minute stays should be the extreme exception, not the norm,’ in death penalty cases,” she wrote.
“But Johnson’s and Higgs’ claims could not have been brought earlier,” Pillard wrote. “As soon as they knew of their COVID-19 diagnoses, they notified the district court; within days, they supplemented their complaints.”