Cory Johnson, who is set to be executed by the federal government on Jan. 14 for his involvement in Richmond’s deadly “Newtowne Gang,” is asking President Trump to commute his sentence to life without parole.
Last week, lawyers for Johnson, 52, asked authorities to withdraw his execution date in light of Johnson contracting COVID-19. He is now experiencing “debilitating symptoms.” In a clemency petition filed Sunday, they asked Trump to spare his life citing what they contend is an intellectual disability that bars his execution.
His lawyers argue that Johnson’s intellectual disability “cannot be seriously disputed, given the overwhelming evidence in his childhood records, IQ tests, expert evaluations, and the accounts of those who have known him throughout his life.”
“Yet no jury and no trial court has ever held a hearing to examine the compelling evidence that proves his intellectual disability,” contends the petition. His lawyers said that leaves the president alone as the fail-safe to prevent an unconstitutional execution.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that persons who are intellectually disabled cannot be executed.
Don Salzman, one of Johnson’s lawyers, said in a statement Monday that “particularly given that Corey has never been allowed a judicial determination of his intellectual disability, there is no principled basis for the government to press forward with his execution under circumstances that put the lives and health of staff, prisoners, and attorneys at risk.”
Johnson was one of three members of the gang believed responsible for at least 10 slayings in a 45-day period in early 1992. Also sentenced to death in federal court in Richmond in 1993 were fellow gang members James H. Roane, 55, and Richard Tipton, 50. The three are the longest-serving inmates on federal death row.
Johnson is known by the Bureau of Prisons and in many court documents as “Cory” Johnson, and known to his attorneys and others as “Corey.”
The clemency petition outlines his traumatic childhood and violent upbringing and contends that like many who are intellectually disabled, he was vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
Johnson found structure and support with a drug gang in New Jersey and moved to Richmond with members of the gang. “The Richmond group soon engaged in the violence that ultimately led to the murders for which Corey was convicted and sentenced to die,” says the petition.
The jury that sentenced him to death did not know about his intellectual disability because his trial lawyers erroneously claimed he was not intellectually disabled, argue Johnson’s current lawyers.
The petition said it was not until years after his 1993 trial that an accurate investigation into Johnson’s background uncovered “the mountain of records and other evidence confirming his intellectual disability.”
The federal government resumed executions this year, conducting 10 thus far. If carried out, Johnson would die less than a week before Trump leaves office. It was learned last week that Johnson and another federal death row inmate, Dustin Higgs, who is set to die on Jan. 15, have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Johnson has been a model prisoner throughout his decades on death row, and poses no danger to anyone if allowed to live out his life in prison,” according to the petition.