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Florida becomes the third state in 24 hours to execute an inmate

Justice SystemLaws and LegislationU.S. Supreme CourtClarence Thomas
In the past 24 hours, Florida, Georgia and Missouri have each executed a convicted murderer
Executions in the U.S. have continued with the Supreme Court's blessing after two months of controversy

Three states, three convicted killers, three executions in a row.

On Wednesday, Florida became the third state in 24 hours to execute an inmate on death row, signaling that capital punishment in the U.S. was clear to continue with the Supreme Court's blessing after a botched execution in Oklahoma in April brought widespread criticism and scrutiny to the practice.

John Ruthell Henry, 63, who had been sentenced to death after killing his wife and her 5-year-old son in 1985, died Wednesday evening after receiving a three-drug lethal injection at the Florida State Prison in Raiford.

His death came shortly after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied Henry's appeal for a stay of execution Wednesday. Henry, who once scored 78 on an IQ test, had argued that he was too mentally disabled to be executed.

Henry's own attorney of several years, Baya Harrison III, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that the mental-disability claim was a bit of a stretch, given that Henry was prone to writing elaborate, "very kind-of-intelligent" letters to judges about his case.

"He's killing me with these very well-written letters quoting the Constitution and things of that nature. I’m sitting here saying, 'John, for God's sake!'" Harrison told The Times in an interview before Henry's execution. "It is what it is. He’s a human being, he's entitled to say what he wants to say. I've never tried to shut him up."

Harrison added: "This guy does not want to die. ... [But] frankly, I’ve done everything I can."

As with Henry's lethal injection, this week's executions of Marcus Wellons, 59, in Georgia, and of John Winfield, 46, in Missouri, came with the explicit approval of several high courts and public officials.

Until Wellons, there had been no executions in the U.S. since the gruesome execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April, which lasted more than 40 minutes after an executioner apparently failed to properly insert a needle into a vein in Lockett's groin.

President Obama criticized the execution, and capital punishment opponents around the country have since cited Lockett's death in their arguments that execution secrecy laws are unconstitutional and that lethal injection drugs may be unreliable.

For almost two months afterward, no executions were carried out across the U.S. and legal experts were mixed on whether the drought was the result of a newfound caution or just a coincidence in scheduling.

What became clear, however, was that capital punishment would not be coming to an end because of Lockett's death. 

The first of the three executions this week, in Georgia, was carried out under a high level of media scrutiny -- at least as much as scrutiny was possible, given that the state's secrecy laws protect information about where it gets its drugs and who administers them.

Wellons had been sentenced to death in Georgia for the 1989 rape and murder of 15-year-old India Roberts, and the Supreme Court gave its blessing for the procedure to go ahead. The Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and other outlets watched (albeit not all in person) to see whether his execution would be carried out without incident, which media witnesses said it was.

"Departments of corrections are aware they're under intense scrutiny now," said Fordham Law School professor and execution expert Deborah Denno. "They certainly always were. ... But I think the Lockett execution is going to continue to resonate because of the extraordinary impact the [botch] had."

An hour after Wellons was executed, John Winfield was swiftly put to death in Missouri: His procedure started at 12:01 a.m. and his death was declared at 12:10 a.m. 

Winfield's execution had been scheduled for 12:01 a.m., but he didn't know it was actually going to happen until several hours before, when the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals abruptly revoked a stay of execution that had been granted a week earlier. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito later approved that decision.

Winfield's attorneys had argued that state officials improperly tampered with a prison employee who planned to praise Winfield's character and stellar behavior in prison in a request for clemency from Missouri's governor.

But the act that had put Winfield on death row in the first place was one that Missouri's governor, Jay Nixon, and several courts could not overlook. 

Winfield was convicted of shooting three women, killing two of them -- Arthea Sanders and Shawnee Murphy -- in 1996. The third woman was permanently blinded

Winfield, Nixon said in a statement that announced his denial of clemency, "showed no mercy that night on his victims. The jury in this case properly found that these heinous crimes warranted the death penalty, and my denial of clemency upholds the jury’s decision."

And with his announcement, Missouri, like Georgia and Florida, was officially back in the execution business.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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