A federal appeals court has ordered that the last two scheduled federal executions under President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration can proceed.
The 2-1 decision came late Wednesday from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, overturning a stay from a lower court delaying the punishment for two murderers until March to allow the men on death row to recover from COVID-19, Reuters reported.
District Judge Tanya Chutkan had paused the executions after both men tested positive for the virus, siding with medical experts who said their coronavirus-damaged lungs would result in inordinate suffering if they were to receive lethal injections.
Cory Johnson, who is scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, and Dustin Higgs, who will be put to death on Friday, were convicted in separate murders and are being held on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Appeals Court Judge Gregory Katsas, a Trump appointee, wrote for the majority that their arguments about health concerns amounted to “conjecture.”
“The record contains only conjecture on whether a lethal injection of pentobarbital would cause any edema before rendering the prisoner insensate,” he wrote.
“Higgs and Johnson each committed multiple murders,” Katsas added. “They have had ample opportunity to file clemency petitions. And the Supreme Court repeatedly has stressed that the public has a ‘powerful and legitimate interest in punishing the guilty’ … which includes ‘an important interest in the timely enforcement of a [death] sentence.'”
Appeals Court Judge Cornelia Pillard, appointed by former President Barack Obama, dissented, writing that the government hadn’t given a strong enough argument for the immediate executions.
“The government insists that these final scheduled executions must proceed as planned. It fails to explain why they must take place this week,” Pillard wrote.
Johnson was convicted in 1993 of killing seven people in connection to drug trafficking in Virginia, and Higgs was convicted in 2000 of ordering the murders of three Maryland women.
The Trump administration restarted federal capital punishment last summer following a 17-year pause on such executions, The Hill noted.
The district court’s delay of the two executions had raised the prospect both men would never be executed given President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to try to abolish the death penalty, The Hill reported.