It was one of the worst bursts of gang violence Richmond had ever seen. At least 11 people were killed in a 45-day period in 1992, all at the hands of gang members who eliminated anyone they thought would get in the way of their growing crack cocaine business.

Corey Johnson, who was sentenced to death in connection with seven of the slayings, was right in the thick of it as one of the leaders of the Newtowne gang. He and two other members were sentenced to death under a federal law that targets large-scale drug traffickers.

Johnson, now 52, was scheduled to die Thursday at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, although a federal judge in Washington, D.C., halted that execution and Friday’s scheduled execution of Dustin Higgs because both men tested positive last month for COVID-19. Government lawyers have been successful in getting a green light from the U.S. Supreme Court to proceed even after lower courts put federal executions on hold, so there’s a real chance both could still go forward.

If the executions are delayed past this week they might not happen at all because President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office next Wednesday, opposes the federal death penalty and has said he’ll work to end its use.

Lawyers for both inmates argue that lung damage from the coronavirus makes it more likely they’ll suffer excruciating pain from a lethal injection of pentobarbital. Johnson’s lawyers also argue he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible to be put to death, under both federal law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In their clemency petition, Johnson’s lawyers asked Trump to commute his death sentence to life in prison. They described a traumatic childhood when he was physically abused by his drug-addicted mother and her boyfriends, abandoned at age 13, then shuffled between residential and institutional facilities until he aged out of the foster care system. They cite numerous childhood IQ tests discovered after he was sentenced that place him in the mentally disabled category and say testing during his time in prison shows he can read and write at only an elementary school level.

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“Allowing Corey to be executed would be a grave miscarriage of justice,” said Don Salzman, one of Johnson’s attorneys.

Government filings have spelled Johnson’s name ‘Cory,’ but his lawyers say he spells it ‘Corey.’

Richard Benedict, who was Johnson’s special education teacher at a New York school for emotionally troubled kids, said Johnson was hyperactive, anxious and reading and writing at a second- or third-grade level when he was 16 and 17.

“I had to have someone walk him to the bathroom because he just couldn’t get back to the classroom,” Benedict said.

Prosecutors, however, say Johnson has not shown that he is mentally disabled.

“While rejecting that he has intellectual disabilities that preclude his death sentences, courts have repeatedly and correctly concluded that Johnson’s seven murders were planned to advance his drug trafficking and were not impulsive acts by someone incapable of capable making calculated judgments, and are therefore eligible for the …read more

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