Georgia on Tuesday was poised to carry out the first U.S. execution since the botched death of an Oklahoma inmate in April, with Missouri and Florida also planning possible executions on Wednesday.
Marcus A. Wellons, who was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of 15-year-old India Roberts, was scheduled to receive a lethal injection Tuesday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson at 7 p.m.
State officials said they planned to use a single drug, pentobarbital, to kill Wellons, and not a three-drug cocktail like the kind used in Oklahoma’s controversial April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, who died after writhing and gasping in his restraints.
But that hasn’t stopped Lockett’s execution from casting a pall over Wellons’ case, and over other planned executions across the U.S.
Georgia, like Oklahoma, has execution secrecy laws that prevent Wellons and his attorneys from examining the quality of the drugs to be used against him or the qualifications of the personnel expected to administer the execution.
“It is a confidential state secret," Gerald King, Wellons’ federal public defender, told the Los Angeles Times in a brief phone interview Tuesday.
And it’s that level of confidentiality that Wellons was still challenging in court as his execution loomed, with his attorney citing recent reports that Oklahoma’s secret executioners had failed to properly administer an injection to Lockett. The preliminary findings of a private autopsy, carried out by a pathologist retained by Oklahoma death row prisoners, were released last week and disagreed with the state’s initial claim that Lockett’s veins had collapsed.
With his execution only hours away, Wellons filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stating that he had a 1st and 8th Amendment right to know who his executioners were and where they got their drugs.
The 8th Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment and is a commonly cited (if not especially successful) defense for death-row inmates facing lethal-injection executions following reports that some of those executions have not gone as humanely as expected.
But the 1st Amendment argument that a prisoner has a right to state information surrounding an execution is a relatively new type of attack on execution-secrecy laws.
In Missouri, several mainstream media outlets, including the Associated Press, have filed a 1st Amendment lawsuit arguing that the state’s execution secrecy policies prevent the public from having a meaningful debate about the government’s gravest responsibility.
Missouri’s scheduled execution of John Winfield on Wednesday was not certain to be carried out after a federal judge granted him a stay last week, a decision that was affirmed by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Winfield was convicted of shooting three women, killing two of them, Arthea Sanders and Shawnee Murphy, in 1996.
The federal judge issued the stay after Winfield argued that state prison officials had interfered with his request for clemency, and according to the Associated Press, the state has appealed the stay to the full court.
Florida also had an execution scheduled Wednesday evening for John Ruthell Henry, who was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Suzanne Henry, and her 5-year-old son from another marriage, Eugene Christian, in 1985.
Henry’s attorneys have argued that he was not mentally fit to be executed.
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