Judge Halts Executions Of Two Death Row Inmates, Citing COVID-19 Infections

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Marlo Safi Culture Reporter
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A federal judge ordered a stay of execution Tuesday for two men on death row due to their recent COVID-19 infections, numerous sources reported.

Justin Higgs and Corey Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-December, roughly a month prior to their scheduled execution dates. The two men argued that the lung damage caused by the infections would cause the lethal injection to give them a “sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding,” thus making the method of death cruel and unusual if they have not recovered, a court statement says.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan granted the limited injunction, which would allow the “plaintiffs to adequately recover” from COVID-19. The two inmates are the last scheduled for execution under President Donald Trump’s administration. (RELATED: Death Row Inmate Scheduled To Be Executed Days Before Inauguration Infected With Coronavirus)

“Based on the declarations and live testimony, the court finds that Higgs has shown that if his execution proceeds as scheduled—less than a month after his COVID-19 diagnosis—he will suffer flash pulmonary edema within one or two seconds of injection but before the pentobarbital reaches the brain and renders him unconscious. Though the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a painless death, it does prohibit needless suffering,” Chutka wrote. 

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishments.

Chutka added that although in Johnson’s case, there was a lack of x-ray evidence related to lung damage, the court still reached the same conclusion.

Higgs was convicted in 2000 of kidnapping and murdering three women —  Tamika Black, Tanji Jackson and Mishann Chinn — in January 1996. He was found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, three counts of first-degree felony murder, and three counts of kidnapping resulting in death.

Johnson murdered seven people in a killing spree in 1992, aided by his drug-trafficking co-conspirators, two of which are also federal death row inmates. 

A day earlier, a judge also temporarily halted what was slated to be the first federal execution of a woman in the U.S. in nearly 70 years. Lisa Montgomery was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday before Judge Patrick Hanlon granted Montgomery a stay, citing the need for a mental competence examination.

Montgomery was convicted in the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a 23-year-old pregnant woman who lived in Missouri.

The executions were originally scheduled on the heels of the Trump administration, which had resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus in the U.S.