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U.S. Executes Federal Inmate Despite Unresolved Intellectual Disability Claim

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

Corey Johnson’s execution went ahead after his lawyers scrambled to stop it on grounds that the lethal injection of pentobarbital would cause him excruciating pain. (Courtesy of Attorneys for Corey Johnson)

The U.S. government executed a federal inmate late Thursday despite claims he had an intellectual disability that made him ineligible for death.

Strapped to a gurney, Corey Johnson, 52, looked disorientated and surprised as a curtain separating him from witnesses raised at 11:09 p.m.

“A lot of people,” he muttered before a U.S. official asked if he had any final words. “No, I’m OK,” he responded casually, still glancing around the room.

The marshal then loudly read out Johnson’s 1993 death sentence for killing multiple people in Virginia a year earlier in drug-related crimes.

READ MORE: Drug Dealer Faces Execution For 7 Gang Killings In Virginia

Johnson smiled and waved toward an area of the execution chamber reserved for a spiritual advisor as well as members of his family and attorneys.

“I love you,” he seemed to say, still smiling as the drugs began to flow. 

For weeks leading up to the execution, Johnson’s lawyers desperately sought a stay of execution based on claims he has a severe intellectual disability.

“Tonight, the government executed Corey Johnson, a person with intellectual disability, in stark violation of the Constitution and federal law,” defense attorneys Donald Salzman and Ronald Tabak wrote in an emailed statement. “No court ever held a hearing to consider the overwhelming evidence of Mr. Johnson’s intellectual disability.”

Johnson’s attorneys also sought a stay based on the fact that he and another death row inmate fell ill with COVID-19 weeks before the execution.

As the drugs flowed into his veins, Johnson spoke a few more words and continued pointing toward people until they seemed to take effect about two minutes later. His chest and stomach rose briefly, and he became still for 20 more minutes.

At 11:34, a voice on a loudspeaker declared Johnson dead.

Immediately, loud cheers and applause erupted from a room reserved for family and loved ones of the victims. One person began whistling loudly. Prison officials led media witnesses out of the execution chamber soon after.

“I've just witnessed the most unimaginable, cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Johnson’s spiritual advisor Bill Breeden told reporters in a store parking lot after the execution.

“I can’t imagine anything worse. … From one room you have a family saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ From another room you have laughing, clapping.”

Breeden distributed a written statement he said Johnson intended to read during the execution. In it, he named each of the seven victims.

“I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes,” he wrote. “I wanted to say that to the families who were victimized by my actions, and I want these names to be remembered.”

According to Breeden, U.S. officials in the execution chamber refused to let him read the statement. They said the only one allowed to read it was Johnson, whose arms were strapped down to a gurney. Two IVs were also injected into each arm.

“They wouldn't let me read it. They said, ‘He has to read it. How's he going to read it? … And why should he have to read it when he's trying to deal with the fact that he's going to be dead in a few minutes?” Breeden said.

Throughout the 24-minute long ordeal, U.S. agents appeared rattled as a voice from Johnson’s family’s side of the room chanted continuously.

“He's standing in there saying loud enough for us to hear in the room, ‘I love you, brother. I love you, brother. I love you, brother. Fifteen to 20 minutes of ‘I love you, brother’,” Breeden said.

“Corey went out being loved. He went out being very real. And I was honored to be there. But I was also ashamed to be there.”

Breeden, who met with Johnson for several hours Thursday, said he believed Johnson was lucid and aware of what was happening during the execution.

The execution went ahead after Johnson’s lawyers scrambled 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.

He was the 12th inmate executed at the prison in Terre Haute 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.

Reporters could not see into into the witness rooms reserved for his family and for relatives of his victims. But it was clear the clapping came from the latter as an official pronounced Johnson dead. Someone also could be heard whistling.

Johnson’s execution and Friday’s scheduled execution of Dustin Higgs are the last before next week’s inauguration of President-elect 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.

But during Thursday’s execution, there weren’t outward signs Johnson ever experienced pain — though some medical experts say pentobarbital can have a paralyzing effect that masks pain inmates might be feeling as they die. Government experts dispute that.

Johnson was implicated with playing a role 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 cited numerous childhood IQ tests discovered after he was sentenced that place him in the mentally disabled category. They say he could only read and write at an elementary school level.

In a statement, Johnson’s lawyers 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.”

Government filings spelled Johnson’s name “Cory,” but his lawyers say he spells it “Corey.”

Richard Benedict, who was Johnson’s special education teacher at a New York school for emotionally troubled kids, said Johnson was hyperactive, anxious and reading and writing at a second- or third-grade level when he was 16 and 17.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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