NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to delay the executions of two condemned murderers until at least March 16 in order to allow them to recover from COVID-19.
The two inmates, Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs, had been scheduled to be executed on Thursday and Friday at the Justice Department’s execution chamber in its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The ruling, though likely to be challenged by the Justice Department, pushes the execution into the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is due to take office on Jan. 20 and opposes the death penalty.
Lawyers for Johnson, 52, and Higgs, 48, argued before Judge Tanya Chutkan of the U.S. District Court in Washington earlier this month that their damaged lung tissue would rupture more quickly after lethal doses of pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, had been administered.
There could be a period of several minutes in which the men experience drowning as their lungs filled with bloody fluids — a pulmonary edema — before the drug rendered them insensate or killed them, the lawyers argued, calling it a form of torture.
“A person with COVID-19 related lung damage will experience flash pulmonary edema before the pentobarbital reaches the brain,” Chutkan wrote in her ruling on Tuesday. “Though the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a painless death, it does prohibit needless suffering.”
She said a brief injunction delaying the executions would allow them to proceed in a more humane manner.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman
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