Three prisoners could be executed in the coming days, ending a nearly two-month, de facto moratorium on American capital punishment since a gruesomely botched attempt in Oklahoma renewed national debates over death penalty procedures.
Georgia inmate Marcus Wellons is set to die today at 7 pm ET. The Florida execution of John Ruthell Henry is scheduled for 6 pm Wednesday. A stayed execution in Missouri, originally scheduled for midnight tonight, could still proceed if state prosecutors succeed in appealing a federal judge’s decision.
If Wellons’s execution goes as planned, it will be the first to take place in the United States since Oklahoma officials botched the execution of Lockett on April 29. Lockett “writhed and grimaced,” apparently in pain, during a forty-three-minute procedure, even after he was already declared unconscious.
Lockett’s gruesome death prompted calls for increased transparency over death penalty procedures. President Obama last month asked the Justice Department to investigate the implementation of capital punishment throughout the country, calling the situation in Oklahoma “deeply troubling.” Judges have stayed or delayed eight executions since April’s botched lethal injection.
“Oklahoma turned the corner. People are more skeptical of how reliable the whole process is. That puts a high burden on Georgia and Florida to be prepared,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, with executions, everybody is watching to see if anything goes wrong.”
As with Oklahoma, the three states set to execute prisoners this week won’t disclose where they procured their lethal injection drugs. Georgia’s Supreme Court most recently upheld a law protecting the anonymity of the state’s drug source, arguing that secrecy makes the execution process “more timely and orderly.”
Wellons’s attorneys cited Oklahoma’s botched execution in arguing that Georgia’s secrecy statute “deprives him and this court of the information necessary to determine whether those procedures present a ‘substantial risk of significant harm’ in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights.” Wellons was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl.
A federal judge last week temporarily halted the execution of John Winfield, originally scheduled to die in Missouri at 12:01 am Wednesday, but state prosecutors are appealing that decision. Winfield’s lawyers presented evidence that state prison officials had unlawfully interfered in his clemency process. Winfield was convicted of shooting three women in the head, killing two, during a 1996 rampage against an ex-girlfriend.
Florida’s Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal from John Henry, whose attorneys argued that he is not mentally fit for execution. Henry stabbed his estranged wife and 5-year-old son to death in 1989. He has an IQ of 78, according to a test, but attorneys said his “abhorrent childhood, extensive personal and family mental health history, poor social adjustment, and lack of rational thinking and reasoning skills so impaired his adaptive functioning that he was actually performing at the level of a person with an IQ of 70,” the state’s cutoff for executions.