Alabama Executes Christopher Johnson

Last night Alabama executed their sixth person of 2011 when 39-year-old Christopher Anderson was put to death for the 2005 murder of his infant son. Johnson had spent just four years on death row, making his stay there unusually shorter than the national average of approximately 12-14 years and possibly among the shortest on record nationwide. As detailed previously, Johnson asked for the death penalty and declined to pursue any appeals, volunteering to be executed.

Johnson’s execution was unusually low key, in comparison to the fair amount of media coverage on recent executions such as Manuel Valle and the overwhelming amount of discussion on the Troy Davis case. Perhaps it’s because the crime, which Johnson readily admitted to, was so horrific or maybe it was because Johnson was so willing to die. Whatever the reason, there has been virtually no outcry against the execution from activists and abolitionist groups.

What little opposition was raised cited a couple reasons against executing Johnson: his troubled childhood and possible issues with his mental capacity. According to the Equal Justice Initiative*, Johnson’s upbringing was not a happy one. He was “sexually molested by his uncle from age seven to twelve. He was exposed to alcohol at age twelve and drugs at age sixteen. Throughout his childhood, he was placed in programs for children with severe mental and behavioral problems. He did not finish high school and was homeless for part of his adult life.”

Additionally, Johnson has according to some reports had issues that call his mental health into question. The same EJI article says, “the judge found that Mr. Johnson was placed in numerous psychiatric hospitals throughout his childhood and was prescribed anti-psychotic medications. He also exhibited behavior associated with mental illness: while awaiting trial, he refused to bathe, slammed his head against the wall of his cell, and attempted suicide by eating toilet paper.”

Another issue the limited opposition brought up was that of state-sanctioned suicide. There’s an article in The Guardian that explains the issue fairly well, referencing a study by Cornell professor John Blume. The article says “Blume studied the cases of 93 death row inmates who set aside legal appeals and allowed their executions to go ahead between 1977 and 2003. Of those, 88% had histories of having struggled with mental illness or drug abuse. Blume also found a striking similarity between the mental health profiles of “volunteers” and those of individuals who kill themselves in the free world. Many cases showed symptoms of schizophrenia or depressive disorders. ‘That raises the question: are these executions carrying out a lawful punishment, or are they a form of state-assisted suicide?’ Blume said.”

Johnson’s mother, Eylene Pack, did not attend the execution and hasn’t seen her son since 2005, but says she loves her son and has made peace with his death. The family held a memorial after the execution. There’s a short video with Pack here. Johnson did see one of his family members though, opting to spend his final hours with is brother, Thomas Lagos. There’s an interesting video with Lagos after the execution that you can view here, as well as a detailed article.The article also contains thoughts from Johnson’s wife, the mother of the 6-month-old infant he suffocated. She did not opt to view the execution, and seems to display mixed feelings about it, saying that while she did not agree with the death penalty, she is comfortable with the idea that her husband will be put to death. “Part of me also believes that it would be more hellish for him to have to live with what he did,” she said.

More details about Johnson’s last meal, execution and last words can be found here and here.

There’s also a very detailed and comprehensive outline of Alabama’s Death Row convictions and appeals process that can be found here. Alabama is one of the only states that, like Florida, allows a judge to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation, meaning that even if a jury recommends life with parole, a judge can still override that and sentence the defendant to death.

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