After nearly two months without any executions in the United States, three convicted killers were executed in less than 24 hours.
The executions in Georgia, Missouri and Florida on Tuesday night and Wednesday night followed a flurry of legal activity that saw appeals and filings come and go, all of which ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court denying the requests to halt the three lethal injections.
And the return to capital punishment came seven weeks after the last attempted execution in the country, a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma that drew considerable criticism and cast a bright spotlight on the issues surrounding the death penalty in the U.S.
The first of the three executions was carried out in in Georgia late Tuesday night. Marcus Wellons became the 21st person executed in the country this year. He was sentenced to death for raping and murdering India Roberts, 15, in 1989.
Wellons had been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Tuesday at 7 p.m., but activity delayed the execution for several hours. A federal judge and the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles had both declined his requests for clemency. Attorneys for Wellons filed an appeal to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, arguing that the state’s refusal to reveal details about the drug that will be used in the injection as well as information about the people who will carry it out means attorneys and the courts can’t determine whether the execution will violate the Eighth Amendment.
That appeal was denied, though one of the judges wrote in a concurring judgment that the state’s secrecy was “disturbing.” Following that, the Georgia Supreme Court denied a motion for a stay of execution. Wellons’s attorneys filed a motion for a stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court, but that was denied shortly after 10:30 p.m. The appeals were denied by the full court with no recorded dissent. (You can read the denials here, here and here.)
In Georgia, a state board — rather than the governor — is responsible for granting clemency, and that board denied clemency for Wellons on Monday. And so after the court’s decision, Wellons was executed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, located about 45 minutes south of Atlanta.
Georgia used to carry out lethal injections using a three-drug combination, but the state changed its execution protocol in July 2012. Now executions are carried out using only the drug pentobarbital, which had previously been one of the three drugs Georgia used in executions. Wellons was the 54th person executed in Georgia since 1976. He was the first person executed in the state this year and the first executed in Ohio since Feb. 21, 2013.
A little more than an hour after Wellons was pronounced dead, John Winfield was executed by lethal injection early Wednesday morning in Missouri. Winfield was sentenced to death in 1998 for shooting and killing two women in an attack that also saw him blind his ex-girlfriend.
“Nearly two decades have passed since John Winfield’s cowardly acts of rage and jealously changed the lives of three families forever,” Chris Koster, Missouri’s attorney general, said in a statement. “He brutally murdered two defenseless young women, one in front of her children, and attempted to murder the mother of his own children, leaving her permanently disabled. For his actions, a court lawfully sentenced him to death under Missouri law, and tonight that sentence has been carried out.”
Winfield’s death came after a federal judge last week agreed to stay his execution, seemingly halting the lethal injection, because his attorneys had argued that prison officials in Missouri intimidated a prison employee who would have supported Winfield’s clemency efforts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated the stay on Tuesday afternoon, so Winfield’s attorneys filed a motion to the Supreme Court on Tuesday requesting a stay.
The Supreme Court denied Winfield’s requests shortly before 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night. All four appeals were denied by the full court on Tuesday night, though on one of the denied appeals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that she would have granted the stay. (You can find the brief denials here, here, here and here.) Gov. Jay Nixon denied the request for clemency a short time after.
Winfield was executed with an intravenous dose of pentobarbital, which Missouri adopted as its sole lethal injection drug last year. Missouri has executed 75 people since 1976. Winfield was the fifth person executed in the state this year, more executions than the state carried out between 2006 and 2013.
- An undated photo of John Henry. (Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
The third execution came Wednesday evening in central Florida. John Henry was originally scheduled to be executed on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
The Florida Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from Henry last week. This appeal had argued that Henry has an intellectual disability that should prevent the execution. Henry’s attorneys also filed a request for a stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida attorney general responded by arguing that “there is no reason” to halt the execution.
The Supreme Court denied the appeals on Wednesday night and Henry’s execution was carried out not long after at the state prison in Starke, located about 50 minutes southeast of Jacksonville.
Lethal injections in Florida utilize three drugs (midazolam hydrochloride, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride), according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida is one of two states that has used midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug combination, reports the Death Penalty Information Center. The other is Oklahoma, which first used it during the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April.
Florida has now executed 87 people since 1976. Henry became the sixth person executed in Florida this year, the second-highest total for any state in the country (there have been seven executions in Texas so far this year).
In a quirk of timing, a fourth execution was scheduled for the same 24-hour window. Lewis Jordan’s execution in Pennsylvania was scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m., according to the death warrant that was signed by the governor, but it was stayed well before that date.
Jordan was sentenced to death in 2009 for shooting and killing Charles Cassidy, a Philadelphia police officer, on Oct. 31, 2007. Jordan shot Cassidy after the officer walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts as Jordan was robbing it.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed Jordan’s execution warrant in April, setting the execution date for June 18, but it was stayed by a Philadelphia court on May 5. Even when the warrant was signed, it was expected that the execution was going to be stayed because of the various appeals still available to Jordan’s attorneys. Pennsylvania, which has 190 people on death row, has executed three people since 1976, none since 1999.
The three executions occurring over a 20-hour window spanning Tuesday night to Wednesday night is the most that have occurred since November 2012, when Ohio and Texas killed three inmates over a three-day span.
These executions came seven weeks after the execution of Clayton Lockett was botched in Oklahoma on April 29. Witnesses said that Lockett was grimacing, writhing and visibly in pain. The execution was called off, but he still died a short time later.
News of this botched execution drew criticism from death penalty opponents as well as President Obama and the United Nations. Oklahoma, which had planned to follow Lockett’s execution with the execution of Charles Warner later that night, ultimately delayed Warner’s execution for six months. (Lockett was sentenced to death for shooting a woman after beating, robbing and raping her and other people. Warner was sentenced to death for raping and murdering an 11-month-old child.)
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called for a review of the state’s execution protocols, while the head of the state’s Department of Corrections asked for all executions to be put on hold until the procedures can be revamped.
An independent autopsy found that the problems with Lockett’s execution stemmed from a failure to properly place the IV. (The state has yet to release the results of its official autopsy or review.) But the execution, which involved Oklahoma using a new drug protocol for the first time, also highlighted other death penalty issues that have caused problems nationwide in recent years.
A shortage of the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections has caused states to scramble as they looked for new drugs, resulting in some states effectively winging it when it comes to these executions. (For example, the first four executions in the U.S. this year involved four states using four different drug combinations.) Other states have contemplated bringing back older methods of execution like firing squads, with Tennessee opting last month to make the electric chair available for more executions.
Since the botch in Oklahoma, two executions came very, very close to occurring, but both were halted by court action with hours to spare. Texas had prepared to carry out the first execution since the Oklahoma episode, but a court halted that because of the inmate’s intellectual impairment. Next, Missouri had planned an execution that was stopped by a judicial back-and-forth before the Supreme Court ultimately halted it.