The state of Georgia, which carried out the highest number of executions in the nation last year, putting nine convicted criminals to death, recorded its first for this year May 17 by administering a three-drug lethal injection protocol to J.W. Ledford Jr., a criminal who spent years appealing his convictions at various levels, and whose final appeal was to demand his execution be carried out by firing squad.
Ledford had been convicted for the November 1992 stabbing murder of a frail and elderly neighbor, Dr. Harry Johnston, a 73-year-old physician who had actually attended at Ledford’s birth 20 years earlier.
After a jury trial for murder and other related charges, including burglary, kidnapping Johnston’s wife, and stealing guns, money and a truck from the Johnstons, Ledford’s jury trial and new trial request were finished by early 1993. He spent the next two years lodging unsuccessful routine state court appeals, and seven more years in added state appeals on various grounds, followed by 15 years of federal appeals calling for leniency based on such issues as his allegedly diminished mental capacity. He consistently lost in unanimous decisions. As recently as April 3 this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Ledford’s lawyers on that issue.
But the inmate’s legal team had one more grounds for appeal: five days before Ledford’s scheduled execution, they filed a new challenge, claiming the inmate’s long-term use of gabapentin, a drug he had been taking for more than 10 years to treat nerve pain, could have altered his brain chemistry so as to render a sedative ineffective — phenobarbital, used in the lethal injection protocol.
Ledford’s lawyers argued there was a “substantial risk” the supposed sedative could attack his respiratory system, depriving him of oxygen as “he drowns in his own saliva.” This would be, they urged, so unbearably painful as to violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The inmate’s lawyers also requested Ledford be executed by firing squad, rather than by lethal injection. Lawyers for the state denied any serious risk of the condemned inmate experiencing serious pain, and urged the reviewing court to be skeptical of a lawsuit filed mere days before the scheduled execution.
The state also had another argument—the requested alternative execution method was not possible, because under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, an objection to a state’s execution method as unconstitutional will only be considered if the challenge can not only state what’s wrong with the prescribed method, but also identify an alternative execution method “known and available” under state law. Since Georgia’s law did not permit any execution method other than lethal injection, Ledford’s challenge should not be entertained.
In the face of the increasing difficulties locating adequate supplies of drugs used in lethal-injection protocols, some states have looked at providing alternative methods. But the laws in only three states—Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah—permit executions by firing squad when lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
Georgia refused last-minute clemency appeals and a federal court dismissed Ledford’s final appeal on May 17. In the early morning of May 18, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Less than an hour later, Ledford’s execution went off reportedly without a hitch—unless you count his final words, which led authorities to cut off the microphone in the death chamber: “kiss my white-trash ass.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.