US executes Corey Johnson for 1992 Virginia murders

Lawyers for Johnson, who was convicted of killing seven, said lethal injection would cause pain due to lung damage from Covid

The US government executed Corey Johnson on Thursday night, despite his lawyers’ last-ditch attempt to stop it on grounds that the lethal injection of pentobarbital would cause him excruciating pain due to lung damage from his coronavirus infection last month.

Johnson, 52, was the 12th inmate executed at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, since the Trump administration restarted federal executions following a 17-year hiatus. The last during the presidency of ardent death-penalty advocate Donald Trump was set for Friday.

Johnson, whose lawyers said was severely intellectually disabled, was pronounced dead at 11.34pm. It took a little more than 20 minutes for him to die. He had been sentenced to death after he was convicted of killing seven people in Virginia in 1992 as a part of the drug trade.

When asked if he had any last words, Johnson appeared distracted, focusing on a room to his left designated for members of his family. Still glancing around, he responded: “No. I’m OK.”

Seconds later, he said softly while gazing intently at the same room: “Love you.”

After the execution, his lawyers released Johnson’s last statement. In it, he apologized.

“I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes,” he said. “I wanted to say that to the families who were victimized by my actions.” He also said he wanted his victims’ names to be remembered.

He also said the pizza and strawberry shake he ate and drank before the execution “were wonderful” but he didn’t get the jelly-filled doughnuts he wanted. He added: “This should be fixed.”

Johnson’s execution and Friday’s scheduled execution of Dustin Higgs are the last before next week’s inauguration of Joe Biden, who opposes the federal death penalty and has signaled he’ll end its use. Both inmates contracted Covid-19 and won temporary stays of execution this week for that reason, only for higher courts to vacate those stays.

Lawyers have previously argued the pentobarbital injections cause flash pulmonary edema, where fluid rapidly fills the lungs, sparking sensations akin to drowning. The new claim was that fluid would rush into the inmates’ Covid-damaged lungs immediately while they were still conscious.

Johnson was implicated in one of the worst bursts of gang violence Richmond had ever seen, with 11 people killed in a 45-day period. He and two other members of the Newtowne gang were sentenced to death under a federal law that targets large-scale drug traffickers.

Johnson’s lawyers described a traumatic childhood in which he was physically abused by his drug-addicted mother and her boyfriends, abandoned at age 13, then shuffled between residential and institutional facilities until he aged out of the foster care system. They said he could read and write at an elementary school level.

In a statement, Johnson’s lawyers, Donald Salzman and Ronald Tabak, said the government executed a person “with an intellectual disability, in stark violation of the constitution and federal law” and vehemently denied he had the mental capacity to be a so-called drug kingpin.

“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,” the statement said. “We wish them peace and healing.”

Prosecutors, however, said Johnson had not shown that he was disabled.

“While rejecting that he has intellectual disabilities that preclude his death sentences, courts have repeatedly and correctly concluded that Johnson’s seven murders were planned to advance his drug trafficking and were not impulsive acts by someone incapable of making calculated judgments, and are therefore eligible for the death penalty,” prosecutors argued in court documents.

CTWoody Jr, the lead homicide detective on the case, said that during his interrogations of Johnson, he denied any involvement in the killings and said police were trying to frame him because of lies people were telling about him.

“It did not seem to me that he had any kind of mental problems at all except his viciousness and no respect for human life – none whatsoever,” Woody said.

Associated Press contributed to this article.

Guardian staff and agencies

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