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Saturday, 19 December 2020

Second federal inmate scheduled to be executed next month tests positive for COVID-19 - as lawyers threaten to sue government if it does not withdraw the execution date

 A second federal inmate scheduled to be put to death next month in a series of executions by the Trump administration has tested positive for COVID-19.

Convicted murderer Cory Johnson contracted the virus while on death row at a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, his lawyers said on Friday. 

The diagnosis comes a day after attorneys for fellow inmate Dustin John Higgs confirmed he tested positive at the same prison where he is also awaiting execution. 

Johnson, Higgs and a third inmate, Lisa Montgomery, are scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at a death chamber at the prison complex just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Johnson was sentenced to death in 1993 after he was convicted of killing seven people related to his drug trafficking in Virginia. 

His lawyers, Donald Salzman and Ronald Tabak, called on federal authorities to strike their client's current execution date of January 14. Higgs is scheduled to die a day later. 

Johnson is currently awaiting execution next month at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana

Johnson is currently awaiting execution next month at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana 

Johnson's diagnosis comes after lawyers for Dustin John Higgs (pictured) said he had tested positive at the same prison, where he is also on death row. He is due to be executed one day  after Johnson on  January 15

Johnson's diagnosis comes after lawyers for Dustin John Higgs (pictured) said he had tested positive at the same prison, where he is also on death row. He is due to be executed one day  after Johnson on  January 15

Montgomery's execution date is January 12, but because she is the only woman on federal death row, she is currently held at a separate prison for female inmates in Texas and would need to be brought to Indiana to be executed.

Lisa Montgomery, 52, is also scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on January 12

Lisa Montgomery, 52, is also scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on January 12

Johnson's attorneys said his infection would make it difficult to interact with him in the critical days leading up to his scheduled execution, adding that 'the widespread outbreak on the federal death row only confirms the reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners, and attorneys alike.'

'If the government will not withdraw the execution date, we will ask the courts to intervene,' they said.

The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors alleged that Johnson was one of three crack cocaine dealers who carried out a string of murders and that he killed seven people in 1992 in an attempt to expand the territory of a Richmond, Virginia, gang and silence informants. 

His legal team has argued that he is intellectually disabled, with a far-below average IQ, and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Higgs was convicted of ordering the 1996 murders of three women in Maryland. 

Montgomery was convicted of using a rope to strangle a pregnant woman in 2004 and then using a kitchen knife to cut the baby girl from the womb, authorities said. 

The diagnosis comes amid concern about an exploding number of coronavirus cases in the federal prison system and specifically at the complex in Terre Haute, Indiana (pictured)

The diagnosis comes amid concern about an exploding number of coronavirus cases in the federal prison system and specifically at the complex in Terre Haute, Indiana (pictured)

She would be the first woman executed federally in more than half a century.


The Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year pause in July, carrying out 10 death sentences since then, including two last week. 

It has executed more people in a single year than any other administration in more than 130 years.

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that inmates held on federal death row - known as the Special Confinement Unit - have tested positive for COVID-19.

At least 1,736 have died of COVID-19, indicating the mortality rate is 45% higher than the national rate

At least 1,736 have died of COVID-19, indicating the mortality rate is 45% higher than the national rate

More than 276,000 prisoners at the state and federal level has contracted coronavirus, meaning the infection rate is one in five

More than 276,000 prisoners at the state and federal level has contracted coronavirus, meaning the infection rate is one in five

As of Thursday, there were more than 300 inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19 at FCC Terre Haute. 

The Bureau of Prisons said 'many of these inmates are asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms.' 

Nationwide, one in every five state and federal prisoners has tested positive for the coronavirus, a recent report by the AP and The Marshall Project showed.  

The rate is more than four times higher than that of the general population.

More than 276,000 inmates have been infected and more than 1,700 have died, and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing.

New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August, with more than 25,000 recorded infections.

Now, the rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for politicians and policymakers. 

Demonstrators lined the road across from the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana last Thursday as they protested against the execution of  to on Thursday, of convict Brandon Bernard

Demonstrators lined the road across from the Federal Execution Chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana last Thursday as they protested against the execution of  to on Thursday, of convict Brandon Bernard

As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can't socially distance and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being. 

Infection rates, as of Tuesday, were calculated by the AP and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system.

The calculations were based on data collected weekly in prisons since March. 

Infection and mortality rates may be even higher because nearly every prison system today has significantly fewer prisoners than when the pandemic began, so rates represent a conservative estimate based on the largest known population.

Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them, according to the data. 

In facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, one of every five prisoners has had coronavirus. Twenty-four state prison systems have had even higher rates. 

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