Ga. prepares to carry out its first execution this year

J.W. Ledford's lawyers have suggested using a firing squad instead, but that's not allowed under Georgia law


By Kate Brumback 
Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia is preparing to carry out its first execution this year: that of a man convicted of killing a 73-year-old neighbor 25 years ago.

J.W. Ledford Jr., 45, is scheduled to die Tuesday at the state prison in Jackson by injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital. He was convicted of murder in the January 1992 stabbing death of Dr. Harry Johnston in Murray County, northwest Georgia.

In this undated file photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections, J.W. Ledford Jr., poses for a photo. (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)
In this undated file photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections, J.W. Ledford Jr., poses for a photo. (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is the only authority in Georgia with the power to commute a death sentence, has declined to spare Ledford's life. Legal challenges filed by his attorneys were still pending.

Ledford told police he had gone to Johnston's home on Jan. 31, 1992, to ask for a ride to the grocery store. After the older man accused him of stealing and smacked him, Ledford pulled out a knife and stabbed Johnston to death, according to court filings. The pathologist who did the autopsy said Johnston suffered "one continuous or two slices to the neck" and bled to death.

After dragging Johnston's body to another part of Johnston's property and covering it up, Ledford went to Johnston's house with a knife and demanded money from Johnston's wife, according to court filings. He took money and four guns from the home, tied up Johnston's wife and left in Johnston's truck. He was arrested later that day.

Ledford told police he had a number of beers and smoked a couple joints in the hours before the killing.

Ledford's lawyers had asked the parole board to spare him, citing a rough childhood, substance abuse from an early age and his intellectual disability. After holding a hearing Monday, the board declined to grant clemency. Following its normal practice, the board did not give a reason for its denial.

Because of changes in brain chemistry caused by a drug Ledford has been taking for chronic nerve pain for more than a decade, there is a high risk that the pentobarbital Georgia plans to use to execute him will not render him unconscious and devoid of sensation or feeling, his lawyers wrote in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday. That would violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment enshrined in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit says.

When challenging an execution method on those grounds, a U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires inmates to propose a known and available alternative. Ledford's lawyers, therefore, proposed that he be executed by firing squad, a method that is not allowed under Georgia law.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Ledford's attorneys had failed to show that execution by pentobarbital would be "sure or very likely" to cause him extreme pain as required by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones also said the decision to wait until just a few days before his execution date to file the lawsuit suggested a stalling tactic.

Ledford's lawyers appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asked that court to temporarily halt the execution. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit on Monday rejected that request. Ledford's attorneys have asked the full 11th Circuit to take up the case.

Ledford's lawyers also asked a state court judge to halt the execution because he was only 20 and his brain wasn't done developing when he killed Johnston. Just as juvenile offenders are considered less culpable and not the "worst of the worst" for whom the death penalty is reserved, the execution of those under 21 is also unconstitutional, Ledford's lawyers argue.

A Butts County Superior Court judge rejected that petition, and Ledford's lawyers have appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Ledford would be the first inmate executed this year in Georgia. The state executed nine inmates last year, more than any other state and the most Georgia had executed in a single calendar year since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume 40 years ago.

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