At least 11 people were killed in a 45-day period in 1992, all at the hands of gang members who eliminated anyone they thought would get in the way of their growing crack cocaine business.
Corey Johnson, who was sentenced to death in connection with seven of the murders, was at the center of the situation as one of the leaders of the Newtowne gang.
He and two other members were sentenced to death under a federal law that targets drug traffickers on a large scale.
Government attorneys have been successful in getting the green light from the US Supreme Court to proceed even after lower courts put federal executions on hold, so there is a real chance that both will go ahead.
If executions are delayed beyond this week, they may not happen at all because President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office next Wednesday, opposes the federal death penalty and has said he will work to end its use.
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Attorneys for both inmates argue that lung damage caused by the coronavirus makes it more likely that they will suffer excruciating pain from a lethal injection of pentobarbital.
In their plea for clemency, Johnson’s lawyers asked Trump to commute his death sentence to life in prison.
They described a traumatic childhood in which he was physically abused by his drug-addicted mother and boyfriends, abandoned at age 13, and then shuffled between residential and institutional facilities until he left the foster care system.
They cite numerous childhood IQ tests discovered after he was sentenced that put him in the category of mentally disabled and say that tests during his time in prison show that he can read and write only at an elementary school level.
“Allowing Corey to be executed would be a serious judicial error,” said Don Salzman, one of Johnson’s attorneys.
Government filings have spelled Johnson’s name “Cory” but his lawyers say he spells it “Corey.”
Richard Benedict, who was Johnson’s special education teacher at a New York school for emotionally challenged children, said Johnson was hyperactive, anxious, and read and wrote at a second or third grade level when he was 16 and 17 years old.
“I had to get someone to walk him to the bathroom because he just couldn’t go back to the classroom,” Benedict said.
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Prosecutors, however, say that Johnson has not proven he has a mental disability.
“While denying that he has intellectual disabilities that impede his death sentences, the courts have repeatedly and correctly concluded that the seven murders of Mr. Johnson were planned to further his drug trade and were not impulsive acts by someone incapable of making calculated judgments, and therefore are eligible for the death penalty, “prosecutors argue in court documents.
A defense psychologist testified during the trial that Johnson’s IQ was measured at 77, above the threshold score of 75 that was later necessary to label someone as intellectually disabled.
Johnson’s appellate attorneys say the psychologist was not an expert on intellectual disability and relied on standards that are now out of date.
CT Woody Jr., the lead homicide detective in the case, said that during Johnson’s questioning, he denied any involvement in the killings and said police were trying to frame him because of the lies people were telling about him.
“It didn’t seem to me that he had any kind of mental problem except his cruelty and no respect for human life, none at all,” Woody said.
Former Assistant United States Attorney Howard Vick Jr., one of the prosecutors in the case, said the violence committed by Johnson and his fellow gang members was unmatched at the time.
One of the gang’s victims was stabbed 85 times and another was shot 16 times.
Johnson was convicted of being the murderer in a triple murder and of participating in four other capital murders, including shooting a rival drug dealer 15 times.
“The atrocity of the crimes, the utter folly of the crimes, the crimes themselves justified the pursuit of the death penalty in this case,” Vick said.
In his clemency petition, Mr. Johnson’s attorneys said he has repeatedly expressed “sincere remorse” for his crimes.
“I am sorry for the large number of people who are dead, you know, and there is a lot about us, and I feel that we are not angels,” he said during his sentencing hearing.
He also spoke to a group of students present in the courtroom that day and urged them not to commit crimes or make the mistakes that he had made in his life.