Why a Georgia prisoner wants to be executed by firing squad, not lethal injection

The death row inmate is the latest to raise concerns about botched lethal injections. 

Georgia Department of Corrections via AP
In this undated photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections, J.W. Ledford Jr., poses for a photo. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said in a news release Wednesday, April 26, 2017, that 45-year-old Ledford, a death row inmate convicted of killing a 73-year-old doctor, is scheduled to die May 16 at the state prison in Jackson, Ga.

A death row inmate in Georgia scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Tuesday was hoping to get a delay so state officials can set up a firing squad, which his lawyers claim would be less painful for him.

J.W. Ledford, 45, has spent about a quarter century on death row after being convicted of the 1992 robbery and murder of a doctor who lived near him. He was scheduled to be put to death at 7 p.m. EDT. 

But his lawyers have launched a last-minute appeal to postpone the proceedings, saying Mr. Ledford instead wants to be executed by firing squad because a drug he takes for nerve pain would lead to an “excruciating death” under Georgia’s current lethal injection protocol.

Georgia uses a single drug, pentobarbital, in its executions and does not have provisions for death by firing squad. The drug is a sedative and has been used by states such as Texas in dozens of executions without major incidents.

If the execution goes ahead, it would be the 11th in the United States this year and the 70th in Georgia since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Ledford was 20 when he robbed and cut the throat of Harry Johnston, then 73, in northern Murray County. Ledford also robbed the physician’s wife and tied her to a bed, a court synopsis of the case said.

In a federal court documents filed last week, Ledford’s attorneys said years of taking a drug for nerve pain changed his brain chemistry, which means pentobarbital will not reliably render him unconscious and insensate. They said its use would violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

"There is a substantial risk that Mr. Ledford will be aware and in agony as the pentobarbital attacks his respiratory system, depriving his brain, heart, and lungs of oxygen as he drowns in his own saliva," the lawyers said in the filing at a US district court in Atlanta.

Georgia responded that the appeal coming a few days before his scheduled execution was a delaying tactic and should be denied because it relies on speculative allegations.

"His claims are time-barred and the complaint should be dismissed," the state said in its response.

Ledford's lawyers have also requested courts to halt the execution on the grounds that he is intellectually disabled. 

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