The executions of two condemned murderers have been delayed for months while they recover from coronavirus.
Inmates Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs had been scheduled to die on Thursday and Friday at the Justice Department’s execution chamber in its prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
However, Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court in Washington ordered the US Department of Justice extend their time on death row until at least March 16.
Their lawyers had argued the virus has damaged their lung tissue and giving them the lethal injection would cause such severe pain it would be like torture.
Johnson has been on death row for nearly 28 years after killing seven people alongside his drug-trafficking partners in the Richmond, Virginia, area in 1992.
Higgs, meanwhile, kidnapped and ordered the murders of three young women in Maryland in 1996, after one rejected his advances.
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 January 20 and opposes the death penalty.
Lawyers for Johnson, 52, and Higgs, 48, argued before Judge Chutkan 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.
Johnson’s ‘Newtowne Gang’ was expanding its illegal operations into Richmond in 1992 when several victims – some suspected of treachery – were murdered.
He shot one victim at close range inside a car, before slaying another at his home for failing to pay for crack cocaine, as well as their sister and a male acquaintance.
In February 1993, he was found guilty of several federal offences, including seven capital murders, with a jury unanimously recommending death sentences for each.
Meanwhile, in January 1996, Higgs and two pals drove from Washington DC to Maryland to pick up Tamika Black, 19, Tanji Jackson, 21, and Mishann Chinn, 23.
Back at Higgs’ apartment in Laurel, Maryland, Ms Jackson rejected his advances.
Offering to drive them back to Washington, he instead took them to a secluded area in the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, gave one of his friends a gun and ordered him to kill them all.
The ruling comes as coronavirus infections remain at
record highs in many US states with nearly 130,000 Americans hospitalised with Covid.
As of Monday night, the US had reported a total
of 22.5 million coronavirus infections and 376,188 deaths during the pandemic, the most of any country.