Cory Johnson: Virginia man to be executed on Jan 14 has Covid-19, lawyers ask for death penalty to be called off

The inmate was one of three members of the so-called 'Newtowne gang' responsible for at least ten killings in a 45-day period in 1992

                            Cory Johnson: Virginia man to be executed on Jan 14 has Covid-19, lawyers ask for death penalty to be called off
Cory Johnson (Richmond Police)

HAUTE TERRE, INDIANA: Cory Johnson, a former member of a Richmond drug gang and a federal death row inmate, has Covid-19. His lawyers have argued that his scheduled January 14 execution be called off in light of this. As per the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a spokesperson for the US Department of Justice, however, informed over an email on Friday, December 18, that, “at this time,” the execution date remains in effect.

News of Johnson's positive Covid-19 test came a day after attorneys for Dustin Higgs announced he too tested positive for the virus. Both inmates are based at US Penitentiary Terre Haute in Indiana. Higgs' January 15 execution is scheduled to be the final federal execution to occur during the Trump administration. The 52-year-old inmate was one of three members of the so-called “Newtowne gang” responsible for at least ten killings in a 45-day period in 1992. The three are the longest-serving inmates on federal death row.

In a statement, Johnson’s lawyers, Don Salzman and Ron Tabak, said, “Cory Johnson also has now tested positive for Covid-19. The government must stop conducting executions during a Covid-19 outbreak in the facility, and we have called on the Department of Justice to withdraw Mr Johnson’s execution date. Mr Johnson’s diagnosis will substantially interfere with his attorneys’ ability to have meaningful contact with him during these critical days before his scheduled execution, and the widespread outbreak on the federal death row only confirms the reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners, and attorneys alike. If the government will not withdraw the execution date, we will ask the courts to intervene,” the lawyers’ statement said.

Earlier this week, Johnson’s lawyers also filed a motion asking for an order prohibiting the execution and to set a hearing for them to present evidence to establish Johnson’s intellectual disability. Johnson’s lawyers contend, “widely accepted modern science now recognizes that Cory Johnson’s valid and reliable childhood and adult IQ results were soundly within the intellectual disability range, including an IQ score of 69 when he was 16 years old.”

“A mountain of evidence shows that Cory Johnson also has had significant impairments in everyday functioning throughout his life, beginning when he was a child. Three nationally-renowned experts in intellectual disability have concluded, after exhaustive examinations, that there is overwhelming evidence that Mr Johnson is a person with intellectual disability,” the lawyers said.

His lawyers, in a joint statement to MEAWW, said: "Cory Johnson is a person with an intellectual disability. Yet, despite compelling evidence demonstrating his intellectual disability, no jury or court has ever listened to the evidence at a hearing to decide if he has an intellectual disability. Under federal law and pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v Virginia, Mr Johnson’s intellectual disability should prohibit his execution from being constitutionally carried out. We are not aware of any other federal death penalty prisoner who has never had a single evidentiary hearing at which he could present his intellectual disability evidence. The government should not proceed with Mr Johnson’s execution in the absence of a thorough and fair opportunity for him to present this evidence."

Earlier this month, the execution of Brandon Bernard proceeded despite the fact that eight prison employees who took part in a federal execution last month tested positive for the coronavirus. Prisoners’ rights advocates have argued that the positive cases highlight the potential danger of carrying out executions — to inmates, to prison staff, and to community members. 

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement prior to the execution, “The fact that at least 20 percent of the [Bureau of Prison’s] execution team has contracted Covid-19 following Orlando Hall’s execution speaks volumes — particularly given the fact that we don’t know how many people opted in to be tested. There is no way to conduct these federal executions right now in a way that is safe.”

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