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Attorneys For U.S. Death Row Inmates Ask Trump To Commute Their Sentences To Life

A headshot of Corey Johnson, who is on federal death row in Terre Haute.

Corey Johnson is one of three inmates scheduled to die next month. (Courtesy of Attorneys for Corey Johnson)

Attorneys for federal inmates Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs are asking President Donald Trump to commute their death sentences to life without parole.

They argued in an application submitted Monday that clemency would be the “constitutional, lawful, just and fair decision” in Johnson’s case.

Johnson was convicted of participating in the murders of seven people over a three-year span in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Virginia.

The attorneys wrote that there was clear evidence Johnson had an intellectual disability but no jury or trial court ever held a hearing to consider the evidence.

 

"Johnson remained in the second grade for three years, and also repeated the third and fourth grades," the attorneys wrote.

"When he was 13 years old, he could barely write his own name. And while he knew there were 12 months in the year, he could recite them only up to August."

They added: "When he was in his early 20s, achievement testing measured his grade-equivalent levels no higher than second grade in reading and writing. When he was last tested at age 45, Mr. Johnson was still at an elementary school level." 

They attorneys said that Johnson’s jury never knew about his intellectual disability because his trial lawyers erroneously claimed he was not intellectually disabled. They said that only years later did new counsel uncover records and evidence aboubt his disability. 

READ MORE: 2nd Federal Death Row Inmate Diagnosed With COVID-19

On Saturday, lawyers representing Dustin Higgs made different arguments seeking clemency for their client. They argued that Higgs did not kill anyone and has been a model prisoner.

Higgs was sentenced to death for his role in the 1996 deaths of three women in a national park. They pointed out that the man who shot those victims received a life sentence.

"There is no principled basis to execute Dustin Higgs given that the shooter in this case is serving a life sentence and the trial prosecutors actively misled the jury in Dustin’s case," attorney Shawn Nolan said.

"The DOJ should withdraw Dustin’s execution date or President Trump should commute his death sentence. If they do not agree to withdraw the date, we will ask the courts to intervene." 

Dustin Higgs: Stop the Execution Now from Off Center Media on Vimeo.

Attorneys for both men are separately asking the U.S. Department of Justice to withdraw the execution dates after learning that they both tested positive for COVID-19.

The two tested positive for the virus last week, only days after the U.S. government carried out two more executions despite the pandemic. 

"The government should not carry out yet another super-spreader execution in the heart of this global pandemic," Nolan, the attorney for Higgs, said. 

Johnson and Higgs are two of three inmates scheduled for execution by the Trump administration during the first half of January. All three -- including the only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery -- are scheduled only days ahead of president-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

Biden opposes carrying out the federal death sentences.

In 2020, the U.S. allowed 10 federal executions to take place at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute — far more than any administration in recent decades. 

This story has been updated. 

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