US Court of Appeals Rules Two COVID-19 Killer May Be Executed in Trump’s Final Week By Reuters

By Jonathan Allen TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the last two federal executions scheduled under the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump could proceed on Thursday and Friday, overturning a lower court suspension than those delayed until March to allow two sentenced men to recover from COVID-19. The United States Department of Justice announced last month that Corey Johnson, 52, and Dustin Higgs, 48, had been diagnosed with COVID-19, but would continue with their executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Both men, convicted of separate murders, are on death row in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered that the executions be postponed until at least March 16 to allow the convicted men to recover, and sided with medical experts who said that their lungs damaged by the coronavirus would cause undue suffering if they received lethal injections. A divided panel of judges at the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Chutkan’s suspension by a 2-1 vote Wednesday night. Attorneys for the two men asked the appeals court to reconsider the ruling by filing a petition Thursday morning seeking a so-called full hearing. “We will ask the full court to intervene to reinstate the suspension, but it is time for the government to stop carrying out executions of super spreaders,” Shawn Nolan, a federal defender representing Higgs, said in a statement. Trump, a Republican and longtime defender of capital punishment, oversaw the resumption of federal executions last summer after a 17-year hiatus as the novel coronavirus continued to spread. Since then, those sentenced to death, at least two of their lawyers and several members of the prison and execution staff have fallen ill with COVID-19. President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, will take office next Wednesday and says he will seek to abolish the death penalty. Higgs was convicted of overseeing the abduction and murder of three women at the Patuxent Research Shelter in Maryland in 1996. He did not kill anyone himself, which his lawyers have argued is grounds for clemency. Johnson was convicted of murdering seven people in Virginia in 1992 as part of a drug trafficking ring. His lawyers say he has an intellectual disability which means it would be unconstitutional to execute him. His attorneys, citing medical experts who testified in court, say the damaged lung tissue would rupture faster than usual after lethal doses of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, were administered. There could be a period of several minutes in which the men experience drowning as their lungs fill with bloody fluids, a pulmonary edema, before the drug drives them insane or kills them, lawyers argued, calling it a form of torture.

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