Georgia Execution Is First Since Okla. Mishap
ATLANTA (CN) - A Georgia man who raped and killed a teenager decades ago became the first person executed in the United States since an Oklahoma inmate's botched execution in April.
Marcus Wellons was put to death Tuesday night after his bids for a stay of execution failed to sway a federal judge, the 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wellons, 59, was convicted in 1993 for the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old neighbor. He was sentenced to death for the murder and to life in prison for raping the teenager.
After the trial court denied Wellons' motion for a new trial, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Wellons' various habeas corpus petitions also failed, and the state scheduled him for execution at 7 p.m. on June 17, 2014.
Wellons' attorneys asked for a stay of execution last week, arguing that the compliance by Georgia officials with the state's lethal-injection secrecy law violated his constitutional rights.
The law, which went into effect last year, prevents the disclosure of identifying information about persons and entities participating in executions. The statute applies to manufacturers and distributors of lethal-injection drugs and to the identities and qualifications of the personnel administering executions. The state said it changed its lethal-injection protocol and adopted the secrecy statute in response to manufacturers' and distributors' reluctance to supply drugs used in carrying out death sentences.
Death-row inmates challenged secrecy laws in several states after the botched April execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma raised concerns about lethal-injection protocols and the quality of drugs used in executions.
In his petition, Wellons argued that Georgia's refusal to disclose details about the drug to be used in his execution, most likely supplied by a compounding pharmacy, added an unacceptable risk of pain, suffering and harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Compounding pharmacies, which are regulated and overseen by the states rather than the Food and Drug Administration, have no way to test drugs' potency and purity, or to prevent their contamination, Wellons claimed. Ingredients that compounding pharmacies buy from foreign countries like India and China are also questionable and could cause significant pain during the execution, according to his petition.
Wellons also challenged the state's refusal to disclose the qualifications of the staff selected for his execution. Pentobarbital, the drug the state planned to use in Wellons' execution, could cause painful chemical burns if improperly injected, Wellons claimed.
The inmate did not object to the state's lethal-injection protocol. Rather, he argued that the officials' refusal to disclose the provenance of the drug and the training and expertise of the execution team prevented him from getting enough information to support a claim. He also said the refusal amounted to a violation of his due-process and First Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten dismissed Wellons' claims as "mere speculation," noting that the state is presumed to act in good faith in selecting the drug's manufacturer and the execution team.
"Moreover, DOC officials certainly have a strong interest in executing its condemned prisoners in a manner that does not violate their rights," Batten wrote Monday, abbreviating Department of Corrections. "Botched executions lead to embarrassment, investigations, bad press, and, perhaps worst of all for the individuals involved, the knowledge that they caused an individual needless pain and suffering."
Georgia's compelling need to keep the source of execution drugs secret also trumps Wellons' right of access to the information, the judge added.
A three-judge panel with the 11th Circuit upheld that denial Tuesday, but Judge Charles Wilson expressed "serious concerns" in a concurring opinion about the state's need for confidentiality regarding information on execution drugs. Wilson could not dispute, however, that the District Court had not abused its discretion in denying injunctive relief.
In a last attempt to stay the execution Tuesday, Wellons' attorneys asked Batten for an injunction based on claims that prison officials had obstructed the inmate's efforts to get support for his clemency petition.
The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Wellons's clemency request Monday afternoon. Wellons argued that the prison and state officials' pressure on corrections officers willing to testify on his behalf had denied him a fair clemency hearing.
An investigator working with Wellons' attorneys had met with a correctional officer at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where Wellons served most of his prison term. The officer had made a positive assessment of Wellons' character and behavior within the prison, according to the June 17 complaint. He or she had initially considered testifying on behalf of Wellons during the clemency proceedings but later told the attorneys that officials had warned prison staff against speaking to death-row inmates' representatives, noting that too many inmates were "getting off death row," according to the complaint. Wellons claimed the officer, and others who might have testified on his behalf, refused to do so for fear of losing their jobs.
Although former employees of the prison were willing to testify at the hearing, the testimony of current staff, who had regular contact with Wellons, might have carried more weight with the board, the inmate claimed.
Batten refused to grant an injunction Tuesday, concluding that Wellons had not shown a likelihood of success on his constitutional violations claims. The U.S. Supreme Court denied three petitions by Wellons shortly before the execution.
Wellons was put to death Tuesday night at the state prison in Jackson, Ga. The Associated Press reported that no complications occurred during the execution. According to AP reports, 35 minutes elapsed from the time Wellons was brought to the execution chamber until the drugs were administered, and he lay still with his eyes closed during that time.
Before the procedure started, Wellons apologized to the family of the teen he was convicted of killing. He was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m.
The state declined to comment on Judge Batten's rulings or the execution.
Attorneys for Wellons did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Missouri executed death-row inmate John Winfield shortly after Wellons' death. Winfield was put to death by lethal injection, with no complications, and was pronounced dead at 12:10 a.m. Winfield declined a final meal and made no last statement, the Missouri Department of Public Safety said.
Winfield, 46, was convicted of shooting his ex-girlfriend and two of her friends during a jealousy-fueled rampage in 1996. The friends were killed, while the ex-girlfriend survived but was blinded.
Florida convicted murderer John Ruthell Henry became the third U.S. death-row inmate to be executed in that 24-hour span. Henry, 63, was convicted of killing his wife and her 5-year-old son in 1985. He died Wednesday evening after receiving a three-drug lethal injection at the Florida State Prison in Raiford.