Convicted murderer Anthony Keith Johnson became the first inmate executed by injection in Alabama despite pleas today from some investigators that it be stopped to help solve the crime.
Johnson, 46, was pronounced dead at 6:27 p.m., state prison Commissioner Mike Haley said.
Johnson, whose requests to stop the execution were rejected by the governor and U.S. Supreme Court only a couple of hours before it took place, was sentenced to die for his role in the shooting death of Hartselle jeweler Kenneth Cantrell in 1984.
Johnson was not the triggerman, and the original case investigators said that, if spared execution, he could help bring others involved in the crime to justice. No one else has been prosecuted, but the district attorney said Johnson's uncorroborated testimony would not have been sufficient to bring charges.
Johnson was executed on a rainy night at Holman prison without giving a final statement. He acknowledged the presence of his pastor and a friend in the witness room and told the warden, "They know I love them."
The drugs were administered at 6 p.m. as Johnson was strapped to a gray gurney, his arms extended and head and shoulders tilted upward. A prison chaplain knelt at the foot of the gurney and prayed. Johnson, his eyes closed, mouthed words in unison with the prayer. The corrections guard reentered the execution chamber about 6:22 and the curtains were drawn across the observation window to the witness room as the body was taken away.
Injection became Alabama's primary method of execution under a law enacted earlier this year, leaving only Nebraska with the electric chair as the sole means to execute inmates.
Alabama's electric chair, known as "Yellow Mama" for its color, has been used since an inmate built it in 1927. It was last used in May.
Gov. Don Siegelman had conferred with the state attorney general's office and others involved in the case before reaching his decision. In a statement, Siegelman said he refused to grant clemency, which would commute the sentence to life, because he believes the death sentence was proper.
He said he declined Johnson's alternative request for a reprieve, similar to a temporary stay, because "the passage of additional time would serve no purpose, either in regard to any legal issues, or to the possible prosecution of additional individuals. It deeply angers me that others who were involved in Mr. Cantrell's murder have not been charged."
Siegelman noted that Johnson had lost his legal argument for a stay before the Supreme Court.
In that request, Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing structure is unconstitutional, based on a ruling in an Arizona case. But the Supreme Court, without comment or dissent, turned down the request this afternoon.
At Johnson's trial, jurors voted 9 to 3 for life in prison without parole, but Morgan County Circuit Judge R.L. Hundley chose not to accept that recommendation and imposed the death sentence.
Hundley, now retired, said today that the governor and his aides had discussed the case with him over several days in an effort to reach the investigators. Hundley, 77, said he never recommended a stay of execution to the governor.
According to authorities, Johnson and two other men went to Cantrell's home on March 11, 1984. A gunfight broke out and Cantrell exchanged shots with his would-be robbers. Johnson was arrested when he sought treatment for a gunshot wound.
Johnson's case first gained notoriety when, to aid the prosecution effort, authorities had to get a court order to remove a bullet lodged in his back. They concluded the bullet was consistent with the victim's weapon, putting Johnson at the crime scene.
No other arrests were made, although Johnson's lawyer says he gave police the names of the other people involved in the killing.
Former Hartselle police chief John Pat Orr said the involvement of other people did not diminish Johnson's guilt, but his testimony would be helpful to convict them. Without it, he said, there's less chance of an arrest and conviction of the others.