Ensuring President Trump’s legacy, the death chamber awaits Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, even as disturbing issues involving the race and mental capabilities of death row inmates persist and just days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, a capital punishment opponent.
Whatever the issues, it takes a lot of money and people for the government to kill.
Rick Winter, a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) lawyer, described the costly complexities in a November 2019 declaration filed in federal court about the “activation of the execution team.” Those difficulties extend to operational disruptions well beyond the death chamber at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind.
His statement outlines how the team, with more than 40 employees from around the country, is temporarily assigned to death duty. “These staff members will, by necessity, be removed from their normal duties, which include a wide range of correctional and administrative positions within the BOP,” Winter wrote.
Another 50 members from Special Operations Response Teams and Disturbance Control Teams are posted to Terre Haute for security. Winter’s statement indicates an execution creates wide disruption.
The execution team members “are scheduled to cease their normal duties several days in advance of a scheduled execution, in order to give the team time to practice and prepare for their role in an execution,” according to the declaration. “In addition to the team members, a number of BOP administrators will be present as well, also ceasing their normal duties in the days in advance of an execution.” Contractors also are used, but the number and duties were not specified.
An execution unsettles the Terre Haute facility when about 200 local staffers are “pulled away from their normal duties” to provide support, Winter said. Because of that, the institution must prepare meals in advance “at a greatly increased cost to the BOP.”
Those costs include $25,397.68 for box meals due to modified lockdown, according to line item expenditures secured by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request covering five executions in July and August.
Those meals apparently needed something extra because $6,480 was spent on “chips for lockdown meals.” The expenditures range from $18.46 for a Walmart heating pad to $44,462.00 for hotel rooms, presumably for staffers from other locations and victims’ family.
The total cost of executions is not clear. BOP did not respond to multiple requests for information. Based on reports obtained by ACLU, the cost of the five executions was about $4.7 million or more than $900,000 per death, according to Cassandra Stubbs, ACLU capital punishment project director. She did not know if that includes personnel costs. The cost of incarceration averaged $37,449 per federal inmate in 2018.
The whole process of killing people is not cheap. A 2010 report to the Judicial Conference of the United States, a policymaking body for the federal courts, says the cost of a case “seeking the death penalty was nearly eight times greater than the cost of a case that was eligible for capital prosecution but in which the death penalty was not authorized.”
The authorized deaths raise troubling questions concerning those sentenced to die. The Supreme Court has said it is unconstitutional to execute a person with an intellectual disability.
A December analysis of state and federal death penalty cases that have been overturned because of that ban found that two-thirds of the intellectually disabled defendants sentenced to death are African American, while just 19 percent are White.
“Vulnerable defendants who belong to communities that have historically been discriminated against by the criminal legal system face an elevated risk of being wrongfully sentenced to death,” wrote Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The findings are especially significant now, as the federal government and several states are rushing to execute a number of intellectually disabled Black men without affording them meaningful judicial review of legal claims that, if proven, would require their death sentences to be vacated.”
One Black man he cited is Corey Johnson, convicted in the 1992 Richmond, murders of seven people.
In a December brief filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Johnson’s lawyers forcefully argued that he is intellectually disabled and therefore should not be executed.
The lawyers said Johnson “remained in the second grade for three years, and also repeated third and fourth grades. When asked his birthday at age eight, while in second grade, he thought it was in March, though he was actually born in November. When he was 13 years old, he could barely write his own name. And while he knew there were 12 months in the year, he could recite them only up to August. Corey was not able to tell time or perform arithmetic beyond a third-grade level … When he was last tested at age 45, Mr. Johnson was still at an elementary school level ….
“Nevertheless, Mr. Johnson is now scheduled to be executed on January 14, 2021,” the lawyers argued. “But he cannot be executed without violating the rule of law.”
The Justice Department and the federal courts disagree.
Time is short, but Johnson continues to fight for life.
“We are continuing to challenge Mr. Johnson’s death sentence in court,” said his lawyer, Donald P. Salzman, with the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm, “as well as the constitutionality of his execution based on his intellectual disability.”