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Federal government executes Corey Johnson following prolonged legal fight

Posted January 14, 2021 11:46 p.m. EST

— Corey Johnson was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was pronounced dead at 11:34 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Johnson was sentenced to die after he was convicted of killing seven people in 1992 as a part of the drug trade in Virginia. The weeks preceding his executio were defined by a tense legal battle after he contracted Covid-19 while on death row.

The Supreme Court denied a last-ditch effort late Thursday by Johnson's legal team that leaned on claims of an intellectual disability and his Covid-19 diagnosis, arguing that his infection paired with a lethal injection would amount to a cruel and unusual punishment.

That appeal came after an appellate court on Wednesday tossed out a lower court's decision to stay the executions of Johnson and another death row inmate who contracted the virus, Dustin Higgs, whose execution is scheduled to take place Friday.

"The government must stop trying to execute Corey Johnson while he is still recovering from the COVID-19 infection he contracted as a result of the government's own irresponsibility in carrying out executions during the pandemic," Donald Salzman, an attorney for Johnson, had said in a statement earlier Thursday.

"There is no principled reason not to wait until the injunction expires in March to assess whether Mr. Johnson's lungs have healed sufficiently that he will not suffer excruciating pain during an execution."

Johnson's legal team has also said that he has an IQ of 69, which would be lower than one standard offered by the Supreme Court as a guide for states weighing whether such an execution met the Constitution's cruel and unusual punishment standards.

"He is a person with intellectual disability who cannot constitutionally be executed," Salzman argued Thursday morning. "The government should withdraw Corey's execution date, or President Trump should grant him clemency."

According to the US Justice Department, Johnson and several co-conspirators were partners between 1989 and 1992 in a "large drug-trafficking conspiracy" based in Richmond, Virginia.

As part of their operation, the department said, Johnson murdered seven people over "perceived slights or rivalry in the drug trade" -- Peyton Johnson, Louis Johnson, Bobby Long, Dorothy Armstrong, Anthony Carter, Linwood Chiles and Curtis Thorne.

Johnson was found guilty of seven counts of capital murder in 1993, with the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia jury unanimously recommending seven death sentences.

Thursday's execution, six days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, coincides with a new push from more than three dozen members of Congress for Biden's incoming administration to prioritize abolishing the death penalty in all jurisdictions.

While Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and to give incentives to states to stop seeking death sentences as a part of his criminal justice plan, 40 members of Congress want to make sure the practice ends on his first day in office.

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