Anti-death penalty activists on Tuesday launched last-minute bids to push back three scheduled federal executions until President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes over, hoping he will spare their lives.
In a Washington courtroom, attorneys for two inmates set to die this month asked a judge to delay the executions because they have tested positive for COVID-19.
Elsewhere, lawyers for the only woman on death row vowed to overturn a federal appeals court’s order allowing next week’s execution to move forward.
Mr. Biden has pledged to abolish the federal death penalty and give states incentives to stop seeking death sentences. Nearly 40 Democratic members of Congress have urged him to prioritize ending the death penalty.
President Trump ramped up the pace of executions, with three federal inmates set to die just days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Since resuming federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, the Trump administration put to death 10 inmates in the last six months.
Lawyers for those set to be executed this month are trying to run out the clock in court.
Not all anti-death penalty advocates believe Mr. Biden will act swiftly to end executions.
Kelley Henry, an attorney for Lisa Montgomery, who is set to be executed Jan. 12, was skeptical the incoming administration would help her client.
“Announcing your opposition to the death penalty is not the same as clearing out death row,” she said. “I don’t have any assurance that just because we get a new administration that means President-elect Biden will spare Lisa.”
Still, the lawyers pushed forward to save their clients.
Attorneys for convicted murders Dustin Higgs and Corey Johnson told a federal court their COVID-19 diagnosis would turn their death by lethal injection into a cruel punishment that runs afoul of the Constitution.
They said the virus damaged both inmates’ lung tissue so severely that they will suffer the sensation of drowning once they are injected with pentobarbital. The experience, the lawyers said, is akin to being waterboarded, a form of torture outlawed in 2005.
The government fired back that defense attorneys’ claims were “simple and pure speculation.”
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan said she would issue a ruling as soon as possible.
Johnson was convicted of killing seven people in 1992 as part of his effort to protect his drug empire in Richmond, Virginia. His execution is set for Jan. 14.
Higgs was convicted of ordering a triple homicide in 1996, forcing a friend to carry out the deaths of three women who rejected his advances at a party. He is scheduled to die Jan. 15.
Meanwhile, Montgomery’s attorneys said they will ask the Supreme Court to delay her execution after a federal appeals court refused a request for rehearing her appeal.
Montgomery killed Bobbie Joe Stinnett, a 23-year-old pregnant woman, in Kansas. Montgomery used a kitchen knife to cut the 8-month-old fetus out of Stinnett’s uterus and planned to raise it as her own. The baby survived.
A federal judge ruled last week that the Justice Department illegally scheduled her execution while the case was on hold because her lawyers tested for COVID-19. That decision was overturned by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The next step is the Supreme Court, they said.
“Lisa Montgomery should not be executed on Jan. 12. She is a profoundly mentally ill woman whose lifetime of horrific torture and trauma led to her commission of a tragic crime,” one of her attorneys, Meaghan VerGow, said in a statement.
Montgomery’s attorneys also petitioned Mr. Trump for clemency. The petition details the domestic and sexual abuse she endured from infancy to adolescence, including being trafficked for sex by her mother and stepfather. She also was beaten by her mother and repeatedly raped by her stepfather.
“What happened to Lisa was worse than any horror movie, worse than anything you can imagine,” Ms. Henry said. “No movie producer would put on a screen what happened to Lisa because it is just too difficult to look at, and no one would buy the ticket.”
Already brain-damaged because her mother drank heavily while pregnant, Montgomery‘s mental health worsened because of the relentless physical and sexual trauma she suffered, her lawyers say.
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