J.W. Ledford Jr. (Georgia Department of Corrections/AP)

J.W. Ledford Jr. smiled as he awaited his imminent death.

For his final words before his execution Wednesday morning, Ledford appeared to quote the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” the Associated Press reported.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach,” he said, adding, “I am not the failure. You are the failure to communicate.”g

“You can kiss my white trash a‑‑,” he said, still smiling.

His death at 1:17 a.m. marked Georgia’s first execution this year and proceeded despite numerous requests from the 45-year-old man to halt the execution. Ledford was sentenced to death for stabbing and murdering his 73-year-old neighbor, Harry Johnston, during an armed robbery of his home in 1992.

After midnight, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution, clearing the way for the lethal injection of compounded barbiturate pentobarbital at the state prison in Jackson. He rested his head, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths before falling about two or three minutes after the warden left the room, the Associated Press reported.

Ledford’s lawyers had appealed state and federal courts for a stay of execution, arguing that executions should be considered unconstitutional for those who commit murder before the age of 21. Ledford was “barely 20 years old at the time that he committed an ill-conceived robbery” lawyers wrote in court documents.

On Monday, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Ledford’s petition for clemency despite pleas from his lawyers, mother, his six sisters and his son. They argued that Ledford’s intellectual disability, tumultuous childhood with an abusive father and early introduction to drugs and alcohol provided a “meaningful explanation” for how Ledford ended up committing this crime, according to court documents.

That same day, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Ledford’s request to die by firing squad, a method that is not allowed under Georgia law. His lawyers argued a firing squad would be a more humane option on the grounds that lethal injection would subject him to an excruciating death because the drug would react to chronic pain medication he has taken for a decade.

Ledford’s long-term exposure to the medication changed the chemistry of his brain so that the lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, would not “reliably render him unconscious and insensate,” lawyers argued. “Accordingly, there is a substantial risk that Mr. Ledford will be aware and in agony as the pentobarbital attacks his respiratory system, depriving his brain, heart, and lungs of oxygen as he drowns in his own saliva,” lawyers wrote, arguing the execution would violate the Eighth Amendment.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Ledford’s attorneys had failed to establish that execution by pentobarbital would present a “substantial risk of serious harm.” A judge also said the decision to wait to file the lawsuit until just a few days before his execution suggested a stalling tactic.


Bernadette Naro speaks out against the death penalty while opponents protest the planned execution of J.W. Ledford Jr. in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Ledford told police he had gone to Johnston’s home on Jan. 31, 1992, to ask for a ride to the grocery store. After the older man accused him of stealing and smacked him, Ledford pulled out a knife and stabbed Johnston to death, according to court documents. According to an autopsy, Johnston suffered “one continuous or two slices to the neck” which destroyed virtually all the muscle and tissue on the left side of his neck.

Ledford then dragged Johnston’s body to another part of the property and covered it up. He then went to Johnston’s house with a knife, demanding money from Johnston’s wife and robbing four guns from the home. He tied up Johnston’s wife and drove away in Johnston’s truck, pawning a shotgun and rifle at a local pawnshop.

He was later arrested, and the following day confessed to killing the doctor. Ledford told police he was intoxicated from six beers and a couple of joints at the time he committed the crime.

Ledford’s lawyers called the killing a “senseless, random act” that “in one fell swoop shocked the conscience of their small community,” a small town in a rural area of north Georgia.

The state executed nine inmates last year, more than any other state. It was also the most Georgia had executed in a single year since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume 40 years ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Arkansas drew intense international scrutiny when it announced it would be carrying out eight executions in an 11-day period last month. The series marked the country’s first back-to-back executions in almost two decades. It was a frantic, unprecedented execution schedule officials said was necessary to carry out death sentences before one of their drugs expired. Witness accounts of the last execution prompted questions after journalists said they saw the inmate lurching and convulsing during the lethal injection, The Washington Post’s Mark Berman reported.

In the hours leading up to the execution, death penalty opponents across the state had gathered in prayer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Demonstrators held hands during a moment of silence outside the state capitol, and read the names of people executed in Georgia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

And for his final meal before the execution, Ledford requested a specific menu: filet mignon wrapped in bacon with pepper jack cheese, large french fries, 10 chicken tenders with sauce, fried pork chop, “bloomin’ onion,” pecan pie with vanilla ice cream, sherbet and Sprite.

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