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Federal execution date set for former Richmond gang member; his lawyers say he's intellectually disabled

Federal execution date set for former Richmond gang member; his lawyers say he's intellectually disabled

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A Jan. 14 federal execution date has been set for Cory Johnson, a member of the Newtowne drug gang in Richmond that claimed at least 10 lives in a 45-day period in 1992.

His lawyers could not be reached for comment Friday, but they contend in a prepared statement that Johnson, 45, is intellectually disabled and therefore barred from being executed.

Johnson and fellow gang members James H. Roane, 55, and Richard Tipton, 50, were sentenced to death in federal court in Richmond in 1993 in the midst of the city’s deadliest decade in modern history.

The three men were indicted in April 1992, charged in the slaying of 10 people. An 11th homicide attributed to the gang was not prosecuted.

The victims included suspected snitches, rival dealers and those who had disrespected a gang partner. One gang victim was stabbed 85 times; another was shot 16 times. And at least one was shot and stabbed.

Johnson, Tipton and Roane are the longest-serving inmates now on federal death row.

After a 17-year lull, federal executions resumed this year with eight thus far carried out and three more set for December. Johnson’s is scheduled for less than a week before the Trump administration ends.

Johnson and his lawyers were notified of the date in a brief letter from the warden of U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute, the facility in Indiana where federal executions are carried out.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Friday that until Thursday’s execution of Orlando Hall, 49, of Texas, there had not been a lame duck execution in more than a century and no outgoing president has carried out more than one execution in the transition period since 1888-1889, during Grover Cleveland’s first presidency.

Dunham said that two other federal death row inmates were given execution dates Friday: Alfred Bourgeois, 56, sentenced to death in Texas in 2004, was set for execution on Dec. 11; and Dustin Higgs, 48, sentenced to death in Maryland in 2000, was set for Jan. 15.

“That’s two men with intellectual disability, Alfred Bourgeois and Corey Johnson,” said Dunham. And, he said, an African American man, Higgs, for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

Johnson’s lawyers, Ronald J. Tabak and Donald P. Salzman, argued Friday that “allowing Corey Johnson’s execution to go forward would be a grave injustice.”

“Johnson is a person with intellectual disability. Yet, despite compelling evidence demonstrating his intellectual disability, no jury or court has ever listened to the evidence at a hearing to decide if he has intellectual disability.”

(Johnson’s first name is given as both Cory and Corey in court documents. The federal government uses Cory.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of people deemed to be intellectually disabled under a 2002 decision in a Virginia case.

“We are not aware of any other federal death penalty prisoner who has never had a single evidentiary hearing at which he could present his intellectual disability evidence. The government should not proceed with Mr. Johnson’s execution in the absence of a thorough and fair opportunity for him to present this evidence,” the lawyers argue.

They said three experts in intellectual disability have concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that Johnson is intellectually disabled.

“Johnson suffered an awful childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse and extreme neglect, all risk factors for intellectual disability. He lived a transient childhood, shuttled between numerous homes and 10 different schools before he reached adolescence,” wrote his lawyers.

When Johnson was 13, he was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother to a residential facility for children with intellectual and emotional impairments, because he could not learn and because she could not cope with his significant limitations, they added.

He was released back into the community when he was 18 from a similar facility with no life skills, no structure or support, and little chance of succeeding in life, said the lawyers.

Johnson was misdiagnosed and wrongly categorized as a person who did not have intellectual disability throughout his childhood and beyond his capital sentencing hearing, his lawyers contend.

They also argue that his sentence was arbitrary because a co-defendant was not sentenced to death. Vernon Thomas, 53, convicted of many of the same violent acts as Johnson, including four murders, was spared the death penalty because of his intellectual disability.

“The evidence of Corey Johnson’s intellectual disability is equal to and in many ways much more compelling than the intellectual disability evidence presented by Mr. Thomas’ lawyer, yet Mr. Thomas is serving a life sentence and Mr. Johnson faces imminent execution,” the lawyers argue.

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