The Supreme Court OK’d the first execution of an inmate suffering from COVID-19, rejecting claims that the coronavirus infection could lead to exceptional pain via lethal doses of pentobarbital. Corey Johnson was declared dead at 11:34 p.m. Thursday, the Justice Department said. He was executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, In., for a killing spree he committed in a drug racket, the Wall Street Journal reports. The three liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, voted to grant a stay. Over the objection of Sotomayor and Kagan, the court denied Johnson’s separate petition seeking a stay to pursue claims that he was intellectually disabled and constitutionally exempt from the death penalty.
Another inmate, Dustin Higgs, was scheduled to be put to death Friday, but the execution was stayed by a federal court based on procedural violation of the Federal Death Penalty Act. The Justice Department asked the high court to vacate the stay so the execution can proceed Friday. The two inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in December. Johnson and Higgs argued that because of COVID-19, the barbiturate pentobarbital would cause flash pulmonary edema upon injection, before the drug had reached the brain, inflicting pain and suffering before the inmate was unconscious. They said they would suffer “a sensation of drowning akin to waterboarding.” The Justice Department told the Supreme Court the inmates had only “mild and improving symptoms” and that the scientific evidence they would suffer extraordinary pain was dubious.