Court Battles

Judge halts final two executions of Trump term after inmates diagnosed with COVID-19

A federal judge halted the last two federal executions set to take place during the Trump administration after both death-row inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

The ruling from Judge Tanya Chutkan, an Obama appointee, will block the executions of Cory Johnson, who was scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, and Dustin Higgs, who would have been executed on Friday. Should the ruling stand and not be overturned by a higher court, the punishments would be delayed until at least March, after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“The court is deeply concerned that the government intends to execute two prisoners who are suffering from COVID-19 infection, particularly given that the disease impacts individuals in drastically different ways and can have particularly devastating long-term effects, even for those with mild symptoms,” Chutkan wrote.

The judge also noted that going through with the execution would put those participating in and witnessing the punishment at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“This is irresponsible at best, particularly when a temporary injunction will reduce these risks,” she said. “The public interest is not served by executing individuals in this manner.”

Johnson and Higgs had previously argued that lung damage from the coronavirus would make the lethal injection they would receive painful and a violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Johnson was convicted in 1993 of killing seven people in connection to drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs was convicted in 2000 of ordering the murders of three Maryland women.

The delays raise the prospect that neither inmate will be put to death given that Biden is opposed to the death penalty. Dozens of Democrats have already called on him to abolish capital punishment.

Chutkan’s ruling does not apply to the execution of Lisa Montgomery, who was originally scheduled to be put to death Tuesday until another federal judge ruled she should first receive a competency examination. Montgomery would be the first female federal inmate to be executed in nearly seven decades.

Tags Capital punishment in the United States Joe Biden Murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett Tanya S. Chutkan

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