WASHINGTON — The Trump administration executed Corey Johnson on Thursday for a series of seven murders in 1992. He was the 12th federal inmate put to death under President Trump.
Mr. Johnson committed the murders in the Richmond, Va., area to further a drug enterprise that trafficked large quantities of cocaine. Among his crimes were the shooting with a semiautomatic weapon of a rival drug dealer, the killing of a woman who had not paid for some crack cocaine and the shooting of a man at close range whom Mr. Johnson suspected of cooperating with the police.
Mr. Johnson, 52, was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 11:34 p.m. at the federal correctional complex in Terre Haute, Ind., the Bureau of Prisons said.
When asked by an executioner if he had any last words, Mr. Johnson responded, “No, I’m OK,” according to a report from a journalist in attendance. Several seconds later, he said softly, “Love you,” gazing at a room designated for members of his family.
In a statement released by a spokesperson for his defense team, Mr. Johnson apologized to the families that were victimized by his actions and listed the names of the seven murder victims, requesting that they be remembered.
“On the streets, I was looking for shortcuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid,” he said. “I am not the same man that I was.”
Mr. Johnson thanked the chaplain, his minister, his legal team and the staff in the special confinement unit. He noted that “the pizza and strawberry shake were wonderful,” but that he never received the jelly-filled doughnuts that he ordered, a reference to his final meal request. “What’s with that?” he added. “This should be fixed.”
Mr. Johnson tested positive for the coronavirus last month, shortly after the government scheduled his execution, during an outbreak on federal death row at the prison in Terre Haute. At least 22 of the men housed on death row there tested positive, lawyers for the prisoners and others with knowledge of their cases said. Madeline Cohen, who represents two of the men, said she knew of 33 cases.
In a request to delay Mr. Johnson’s execution, his lawyers said the virus had caused significant lung damage. They argued his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because he could experience a sensation of suffocating or drowning if put to death with the federal government’s method, which uses a single drug, pentobarbital. Instead, his lawyers suggested, Mr. Johnson could be executed by firing squad or the Bureau of Prisons could administer a pain-relieving anesthetic drug before the injection of pentobarbital.
Specifically, Mr. Johnson’s lawyers argued that the combination of the coronavirus and the government’s lethal injection protocol would place him “especially at risk of experiencing flash pulmonary edema while still sensate.” Flash pulmonary edema, a condition in which fluid rapidly accumulates in the lungs, has been at the center of some challenges to the federal government’s execution protocol. The courts have been largely unreceptive to those claims.
But briefly, it seemed as if the coronavirus would provide Mr. Johnson a reprieve. A judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia suspended Mr. Johnson’s execution and another execution scheduled for Friday until at least March. Shortly after, a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned that order.
Joined by another judge on the panel, Judge Gregory G. Katsas of the Appeals Court cited Supreme Court precedent that states that the Eighth Amendment “‘does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death — something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people.’”
In a filing with the Supreme Court, the government contrasted its lethal injection protocol with death by hanging, claiming that hanging could cause suffocation that lasts several minutes. Even if coronavirus infections would make the prisoners’ executions more painful, the government argued, the “brief duration of pain,” most likely measured in seconds or at most two minutes, would be far less than that of inmates executed by hanging.
Mr. Johnson “is a convicted serial killer who murdered and maimed multiple people on different occasions, and whose victims included innocent bystanders,” the government said in a separate filing with the Supreme Court. “Their families have waited decades for the sentence to be enforced and are currently in Terre Haute, Ind., for the execution.”
A majority of the Supreme Court sided with the government in declining Mr. Johnson’s requests for reprieve.
Mr. Johnson’s lawyers also sought to challenge his execution by arguing he was intellectually disabled, rendering it unlawful.
His claims of intellectual disability were rejected on the basis that an I.Q. score of 77 was believed to be too high to merit the diagnosis, his lawyers said. But they argued that results from other I.Q. tests and an adjusted version of the same score indicated that he qualified as intellectually disabled.
But rebutting those claims, the Justice Department contended that the murders were planned, and not impulsive acts by someone incapable of calculated judgments. For example, when the drug organization operated in Trenton, N.J., Mr. Johnson beat people with a metal bat to protect the enterprise, the government said.
Lawyers for another man executed by the Trump administration — Alfred Bourgeois in December — also argued that their client was intellectually disabled. In both cases, a majority on the Supreme Court rejected the prisoners’ claims.
Two of Mr. Johnson’s lawyers still maintained that their client lacked the capacity to be a drug kingpin, as he was portrayed by the government. In a statement, they said he could barely read or write, struggled with basic tasks of daily living and was “a follower, desperate for approval, support and guidance.”
“No court ever held a hearing to consider the overwhelming evidence of Mr. Johnson’s intellectual disability,” said the lawyers, Donald P. Salzman and Ronald J. Tabak. “And the clemency process failed to play its historic role as a safeguard against violations of due process and the rule of law.”
Mr. Johnson was convicted in 1993 of seven capital murders, among a host of other charges related to drug trafficking and acts of violence. His lawyers unsuccessfully argued that he should be granted some reprieve under the First Step Act, a bill signed into law by Mr. Trump that among other things allowed for shortened sentences for certain drug offenders.
Two others involved in the conspiracy — Richard Tipton and James Roane — who together trafficked large quantities of cocaine in the Richmond area in the early 1990s, were also sentenced to death.
Mr. Tipton and Mr. Roane remain at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. The Justice Department has not scheduled their executions.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose term begins Wednesday, has signaled his opposition to the federal death penalty, so their executions are unlikely to occur anytime soon. Mr. Biden has pledged to work to pass legislation to end the federal death penalty as part of his criminal justice platform.
The Trump administration intends to execute its final inmate, Dustin J. Higgs, on Friday. Mr. Higgs was sentenced to death for the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland. If his lawyers are unsuccessful in their appeals and Mr. Trump does not grant clemency, Mr. Higgs’s death will be 13th federal execution in a little over six months and the third this week. Lisa M. Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, was put to death on Wednesday.
Since July, the number of prisoners under a federal death sentence dropped by about 20 percent as a result of the spate of executions carried out by the Trump administration, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center. That month, the administration resumed the use of federal capital punishment after a 17-year hiatus.