Alabama executes Christopher Johnson despite mental health doubts

Prisoner had shown signs of mental illness, making it against the constitution to put him to death, say campaigners

The American state of Alabama has put to death a prisoner who over many years showed signs of mental illness – in spite of the US supreme court outlawing the execution of mentally ill people on the grounds it is unconstitutional.

Christopher Johnson died by lethal injection at Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama.

The Equal Justice Initiative pointed out that Johnson was in and out of psychiatric hospitals throughout his childhood and was put on anti-psychotic drugs. On death row he kept away from other inmates, spent all his time alone in his cell and showed erratic behaviour including attempting to kill himself by eating toilet paper and slamming his head against the cell wall.

Several US supreme court judgments have underlined that putting mentally ill or incompetent people to death is against the constitution. Yet no court ever evaluated whether Johnson was mentally competent to face execution.

Johnson insisted on representing himself during key parts of his trial. He was put on death row for killing his six-month-old son Elias in February 2005.

After the sentence he consistently declined any offers of legal advice and requested no further appeals against his execution. Academic studies have found that about 80% of so-called "volunteer" cases like his – where the prisoner voluntarily brings on his own death – show signs of serious mental illness.

Opponents of Johnson's death said that it amounted to state-assisted suicide, which is illegal in the US.

Esther Brown of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, a group whose board consists of Alabama death row prisoners, said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with Christopher Johnson's family members, who are also the murder victim's family. We will not condone state-assisted homicide, even when the individual requested it."

Johnson is the sixth person executed this year in Alabama, the state with the highest execution rate per capita in America.


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Texas executes man at centre of mental disability row

Defence attorneys for Bobby Wayne Woods argued for state to spare inmate following low scores on IQ tests

Chris McGreal in Washington

04, Dec, 2009 @3:28 PM

Article image
Florida executes mentally ill man despite constitutional prohibition

Schizophrenic man dies by lethal injection despite his lawyers' pleas to supreme court to intervene

Ed Pilkington in New York

05, Aug, 2013 @4:20 PM

Article image
US executes Corey Johnson for 1992 Virginia murders
Lawyers for Johnson, who was convicted of killing seven, said lethal injection would cause him pain due to lung damage from Covid

Guardian staff and agencies

15, Jan, 2021 @1:56 PM

Article image
Alabama to execute inmate despite protests over lethal injection drug
Robert Melson, 46, was convicted of killing three people in 1994 but lawyers say Alabama’s method of execution violates eighth amendment

Staff and agencies

08, Jun, 2017 @4:07 PM

Article image
Kelly Gissendaner: Georgia executes first woman for 70 years despite last-minute appeals
Letter on behalf of Pope Francis and video from three of her children pleading for clemency did not sway authorities in the state

Guardian staff and agencies

30, Sep, 2015 @7:50 AM

Article image
Missouri inmate's execution blocked over mental health concerns
Federal judge says there is significant evidence John Middleton is mentally incompetent and therefore ineligible to be executed

Ed Pilkington in New York

15, Jul, 2014 @4:17 PM

Troy Davis execution goes ahead despite serious doubts about his guilt

Condemned man proclaimed innocence in last words to victim's family before lethal injection in Georgia prison

Ed Pilkington in Jackson

22, Sep, 2011 @4:53 AM

Article image
Missouri poised to execute sixth inmate in 2014 despite fresh doubts
Attorneys claim evidence shows John Middleton, 54, was in jail 40 miles away when Alfred Pinegar was murdered in 1995

Ed Pilkington in New York

14, Jul, 2014 @4:45 PM

Article image
US executes 1,000th prisoner since 1976
The US today executed its 1,000th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Staff and agencies

02, Dec, 2005 @12:28 PM

California executes Clarence Ray Allen, 76
Seventy-six-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was executed at California's San Quentin prison early yesterday morning. He is the second oldest person to be executed in the United States since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976.

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles

18, Jan, 2006 @12:09 AM