US Executes Corey Johnson for String of 1992 Virginia Killings

4 min read

TERRE HAUTE, IND – The Trump administration continued its unprecedented series of lame-duck period executions on Thursday, just one day after the execution of Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be federally executed since 1953.

Corey Johnson was executed via a lethal injection at USP Terre Haute, as protesters gathered at a Dollar General store across the street. The 52-year-old was pronounced dead at 11:34 PM, EST. He had been on death row for 22 years. His legal team filed for multiple preliminary injunctions and stays of execution, including various emergency filings to the US Supreme Court, all of which were denied, promptly allowing his execution to commence.

Johnson’s death sentence stems from his conviction for the killing of 7 people in 1992 in a dispute over drug turf. Johnson was a member of the Newtowne Gang, a large-scale crack cocaine trafficking operation in Richmond, Virginia. The operation was responsible for the deaths of at least 11 people over a 45-day period. Victims were stabbed and shot to death. Johnson was sentenced under a federal law targeting large-scale drug traffickers.

On Tuesday, a federal judge had granted Johnson ,and fellow death-row inmate Dustin Higgs, a stay of execution until at least March. Both men have COVID-19, and the judge issued a preliminary injunction citing the possibility that the lethal injection could violate the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Pentobarbital, the drug used for lethal injection in federal executions, has been known to cause sensations akin to drowning, filling the victims lungs with fluid as they gasp and writhe on the cross-shaped gurney. Media witnesses have reported victims stomachs ‘heaving’ and ‘shaking’, sometimes violently, after Pentobarbital is injected. Multiple methods for Johnson’s execution were discussed, including administering sedative before lethal injection, as well as a chilling suggestion for death by firing squad.

Earlier this year, in the execution of Louisiana truck driver Alfred Bourgeois, his stomach made the same heaving motion for almost half an hour before he was declared dead. If Bourgeois suffered that night, he suffered for a long time. With COVID-19, the pain would only be worse.

Johnson’s legal team argued that their client was intellectually disabled with an IQ of 70 – 73, making him sufficiently intellectually disabled to avoid execution under Atkins v. Virginia, a supreme court case that which ruled that the mentally handicapped can’t be executed. When Johnson was convicted, he read at a second grade level and could barely write.

Corey Johnson, 1993
| BOP.Gov |

In 1993, psychologist Dewey Cornell had Johnson write him a story based on a provided photo of an astronaut crouching on a lunar landscape. Johnson began writing in scribbled loops of cursive, going in different directions.

“Me and my Mom went to the moon, when we got there there was people wroking they look like they was beilling something, but what I like most was when this man show us what they was look for.” Johnson wrote. His story rambled on for another nine sentences, finishing with a conundrum: “but when I saw this man he look like he had found something, what I don’t no.”

His story was full of spelling and grammatical errors, barely legible. Cornell was shocked, and began taking meticulous notes as he observed Johnson’s story.

“Corey’s story was 159 words long, with 9 different words misspelled,” he wrote. “Approximately 2/3 of the grammatical phrases were incorrect. The themes and imaginative ideas in his story were extremely immature for his age.” Cornell concluded that Johnson’s written language abilities were equivalent to those of an average elementary school student.

However, Johnson was 24, a grown man living on his own and writing at the level of a 2nd grader. The courts sided with the federal government and dismissed Johnson’s intellectual disability claims, The Anti-Drug Abuse Act states “death shall not be carried out upon a person who is mentally retarded.” *

With all of his legal options for delay exhausted, and efforts from anti-death-penalty activists falling on deaf ears, the US Supreme Court denied all of Johnson’s emergency filings, allowing his execution to move forward. He became the 12th inmate to be federally executed under the Trump administration, and the fourth in a presidential lame-duck period.

When asked by an executioner if he had any last words, Johnson replied “No. I’m OK.” Then, he gazed longingly at a room to his left, reserved for members of his family.

“Love you,” Johnson said.

As Pentobarbital began to flow into IV’s in Johnson’s arms, he lifted his arm at the wrist and waved to someone behind glass in his family viewing room.

Johnson was pronounced dead at 11:34.

As his time of death was pronounced, Sarah Leeman, a media witness, reported hearing whistling and clapping from other areas in the execution chamber, an apparent celebration of Johnson’s death.

Johnson’s final statement, made through his legal team, can be viewed below.

Per Mike Balsamo, Associated Press

On January 15th, Dustin John Higgs is set to be executed on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Higgs will be the last federal execution for the Trump administration.


* ‘Mentally Retarded’, used in this context, is language from a statute. By definition, mental retardation is ‘Below average intelligence and set of life skills present before age 18.’

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