Less than four hours before Corey Johnson was scheduled to die — the second of three people killed in the federal death chamber the week before President Donald Trump left office — the Rev. Bill Breeden sat at a picnic table a few miles from the penitentiary mulling his last words. As Johnson’s minister of record, Breeden had agreed to read a final statement on his behalf. “I took notes on what he wants to say and kind of put it together,” he told me. Anyone who had corresponded with Johnson knew that his writing skills were limited. “He’s childlike in a lot of ways,” Breeden said. “But he’s extremely brilliant in a lot of ways.”
Breeden had left the penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, just a little while earlier. It was his final visit with Johnson, and his eyes were red. Their time together had been brief but intense: five visits over a couple of weeks. Johnson was recovering from Covid-19, which left him fatigued. Breeden marveled at Johnson’s spirit, which had withstood 29 years in solitary confinement without a visitor apart from his attorneys. “He’s a beautiful person,” Breeden said, adding, “He’s very remorseful about his crimes.”
Johnson, 52, was sentenced to death in 1993, when he was in his early 20s. Tried as a “drug kingpin” alongside two other men under the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, he was convicted of seven murders — a shocking body count that many would associate with the “worst of the worst.” Yet the case would not likely end in a death sentence today. There was significant proof that Johnson had an intellectual disability, which should have forbidden him from being sentenced to death. But reviewing courts refused to consider the evidence.
Regardless, Breeden’s task was not to judge Johnson for his crimes. As Johnson’s spiritual adviser, his job was to prepare him to die. “I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done,” he said. “I think when you’re dying, life should give you the gift of being in the presence of somebody who cares, instead of just people who are paid to kill you.” Breeden knew that many on death row had little sense of self-worth. He shared with Johnson the tale of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” about a boy and his beloved stuffed animal, which eventually comes to life. “You become real by being loved,” Breeden said. Although Johnson’s family had never come to see him on death row, they were in Terre Haute now. Several planned to witness his execution.
A Unitarian minister with a history of civil disobedience, Breeden is well-known among a certain generation of social justice activists in Southern Indiana. He and his wife, Glenda, live on 42 rural acres just outside Spencer, a small town 15 miles from Bloomington. A lifelong pacifist, Breeden’s biggest claim to fame is being the only person imprisoned as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal. After a street in his hometown of Odon was renamed for Adm. John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Breeden stole the sign and held it for a ransom of $30 million — the sum transferred to the Contras in Nicaragua. He spent four days in jail.
The Breedens were a regular presence at the protests against the Trump administration’s executions. They were among a small handful of activists who had also protested the last round of federal executions 17 years earlier, beginning with Timothy McVeigh in 2001. In the intervening years, Bill Breeden had forged a close relationship with another man on federal death row. When we first spoke last summer, Breeden was worried that the man, who also has an intellectual disability, might be on the verge of an execution date.
Although Breeden has generally found the employees who work in the Special Confinement Unit to be decent people, there have been exceptions. Breeden often tells a story that captures how cruel such individuals can be. It was an open secret that his friend on death row had raised mice for years — one way to forge connections with living creatures while living in crushing isolation. He named the mice and trained them. But one year, a new unit manager came in and ordered an unexpected shakedown. The mice were discovered. When Breeden’s friend begged the guards not to harm the mice, the unit manager mocked him. “And he said, ‘I can’t give them back to you, I just flushed them down the stool,’” Breeden said. His friend tried to kill himself shortly afterward.
There were smaller indignities too, right up until a person’s execution date. Johnson had requested jelly-filled donuts as part of his last meal, Breeden told me, but was given donut holes instead. “I said, ‘That ain’t right. They tell you you can have anything you want, but you can’t get jelly-filled donuts?’” He said he planned to incorporate this into Johnson’s final statement. Perhaps it would add a moment of levity.
But the moment never came. The next time I saw Breeden, it was just after midnight, and he was walking unsteadily in the dark toward the activists gathered at the Dollar General across from the penitentiary. Raw anguish was written on his face. Johnson had been pronounced dead at 11:34 p.m. “I’ve just witnessed the most unimaginable, cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” Breeden said. “I can’t imagine anything worse.”
“I’ve just witnessed the most unimaginable, cold-blooded, premeditated murder. I can’t imagine anything worse.”
Inside the execution chamber, a Bureau of Prisons official had read the death warrant with the exaggerated flair of a circus announcer. There was cheering and applause from one of the witness rooms when Johnson was declared dead, presumably from relatives of Johnson’s victims. “I don’t think they would have laughed and clapped if they had let me read Corey’s last statement,” Breeden said. But officials wouldn’t allow it. “They said he has to read it. How’s he gonna read it when he’s lying like this?” he said, stretching out his arms.
Breeden asked for a flashlight and read the statement he had crafted with Johnson. “I want to say that I am sorry for my crimes,” he began. He listed all seven of Johnson’s victims. “I want these names to be remembered,” he said, telling their families, “I hope you will find peace.”
“To my family, I have always loved you,” Breeden continued. “And your love has made me real. … I am not the same man that I was.” He thanked the prison staff for their kindness and for giving him pizza and a strawberry shake. “But I didn’t get my jelly-filled donuts that I ordered. What’s with that? This should be fixed.”
Dismantle the Death Chamber
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, presidential election, and right-wing insurrection, Trump’s execution spree ended much like it began, with three killings carried out back-to-back over the course of one week. In all, 13 people died in the federal death chamber between July 2020 and January 2021. If not for the abrupt departure of Attorney General William Barr and a major Covid-19 outbreak on federal death row in December, the number may well have been even higher.
Although it took some time for Americans to start paying attention, the killings revitalized the fight against the death penalty in the United States. Many of the executions were emblematic of capital punishment’s enduring unfairness, and the final three were no exception. Lisa Montgomery, the only woman under a federal death sentence, had lived a life marked by extreme trauma and mental illness. Johnson was killed despite a Supreme Court ban on executing people with intellectual disabilities. And Dustin Higgs, the last man to die, was executed for three murders carried out by another man, who had since said that the government’s case was “bullshit.” All of the last six men killed were Black.
On January 21, the day after Joe Biden’s inauguration, I joined a Zoom panel sponsored by Columbia University titled “Abolish the Federal Death Penalty!” The introduction was upbeat. “This is the first time in American history … that a president of the United States has declared himself to be an abolitionist,” said the moderator, law professor Bernard Harcourt, who has handled capital cases for years.
One of the featured speakers was Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., who has helped lead the charge to abolish the federal death penalty. The calls from activists and lawmakers go well beyond asking Biden to issue a moratorium, which would leave people on federal death row vulnerable to execution in the future. In a letter written on behalf of 45 members of Congress last month, Espaillat and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., urged Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland to stop seeking new death sentences and “direct the Bureau of Prisons to dismantle the federal death chamber” in Terre Haute.
Much of the panel focused on an aspect of executions that is often ignored: the impact on the families of the condemned. Author and activist Susannah Sheffer explained it in terms of a concept known as disenfranchised grief: “when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” She was joined by Lee Greenwood, whose son was executed in Texas in 2007. His death continued to reverberate, Greenwood said, but she was also fortunate compared to others in her position. One woman she knew had been shunned in her small town after her loved one was sent to death row. Greenwood was grateful that her own friends stood by her. “I don’t know what to say, just know that I’m here,” she recalled some of them telling her.
As the panelists spoke, Alexa Cave Wingate was watching the event on her phone at a shopping mall in Georgia, where she was buying birthday gifts for her granddaughters. It had been less than a week since she’d witnessed the execution of her brother, Higgs. Media witnesses had described loud sobbing coming through the walls that night; the sounds had come from her. Now Wingate was trying to move forward, but the Bureau of Prisons had not even sent her brother’s body for burial. Unable to get through to anyone from the federal government, she took to Twitter to pressure the BOP. “We’re having a hard time,” she told me in a text message later that night. “But we’ll get it together.”
The following week, Death Penalty Action held another Zoom call, this one featuring Pressley. Since the controversial execution of Brandon Bernard in December, Pressley said, support for her abolition bill, which she first introduced in 2019, had skyrocketed. Between the House and Senate versions, the number of co-sponsors had climbed from 20 to 80, she said. “And it continues to grow.”
The call also featured Lisa Brown, whose son Christopher Vialva was Bernard’s co-defendant — and the seventh person killed in the execution spree. Since witnessing his execution last September, Brown had devoted herself to helping other families navigate the process. In a recent phone call, Brown told me that Johnson’s family had yet to receive his remains. They feared they had been lost in transit — and like Wingate, they could not get any answers from the BOP. “It has just been horrific to talk to the families about the things that they’ve endured after the fact,” Brown told attendees of the meeting.
In response to questions about the handling of Johnson’s and Higgs’s remains, a BOP spokesperson said he was “unable to address specific inmate cases” but referred me to a document containing policy information on the bureau’s handling of people who die in its custody. It was titled “Patient Care.”
Brown told me she was especially distraught over Johnson’s execution. She had corresponded with him in the month leading up to his execution, and it was immediately clear from his limited writing skills that what his lawyers said about his intellectual disability was true. She was angered when she heard about the cheering audible from the witness room the night that he died. Before she set foot in the room where she would watch the government kill her own son, she said, “I was specifically instructed … that if we banged on that witness room window, if we said anything too loud, if we got too loud even with our crying, that we would be removed.”
Just Look at Me
Of the final three people scheduled to die, many believed Lisa Montgomery had the best shot at clemency. Although her crimes were horrific — the murder of a pregnant woman and the abduction of the woman’s unborn child — it was clear to most, including others on federal death row, that they were driven by trauma and mental illness. “Everyone I’ve talked to about Lisa, including the staff, all concluded that Lisa was ‘crazy,’” one condemned man wrote to me after her execution.
Since the Bureau of Prisons first notified Montgomery in October that she’d been given a date to die, her fragile mental state had dramatically worsened. At the medical prison where she was incarcerated in Texas, she was stripped of all her belongings, including photos of her children, and placed in a small cell that was brightly lit around the clock. The conditions, designed to prevent suicide, were described as torture in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Montgomery, a survivor of extreme sexual violence, was not allowed to wear her normal undergarments, and she had no privacy when using the bathroom. It was only due to pressure from her attorneys that Montgomery was allowed a pair of socks, a crayon, and a single piece of paper at a time.
Montgomery’s attorneys arrived in Terre Haute on the Saturday before her scheduled execution on January 12. They were not notified in advance of when she would be transported from Texas to Indiana, but they knew it would be close to her execution date. Days earlier, her attorney Kelley Henry had presented Montgomery’s clemency petition to pardon attorneys at the Department of Justice in a video call while watching footage of the insurrection at the Capitol.
On the morning of her execution, Montgomery met with her spiritual adviser, who told her that he would be in the execution chamber with her and would sing “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves Me” when the lethal injection drugs started to flow. But when he arrived that night, he was not allowed in the room. As the execution began, one media witness wrote, an executioner removed Montgomery’s face mask and asked if she had any last words. “‘No,’ Montgomery responded in a quiet, muffled voice. She said nothing else.” She was pronounced dead at 1:31 a.m.
“We were praying for the stays to stick. Probably the most heartbreaking news was to find out we lost everything.”
At the Dollar General across from the penitentiary, a group of people stood quietly apart from the activists who held vigils on execution nights. The group had asked for privacy. When they saw the vans carrying media witnesses pass by, they formed a circle and held hands. Later I would discover that they were members of Montgomery’s family. “We were praying for the stays to stick,” one of her daughters wrote in a message as the family left Terre Haute. “Probably the most heartbreaking news was to find out we lost everything.”
Wingate arrived in Terre Haute on the evening of Montgomery’s execution. The next morning, she visited her brother in person for the first time in 20 years. Although their visit took place behind glass, she could see Higgs was struggling with Covid-19 symptoms. “He still was having a hard time breathing, and he said his head hurt,” she said.
For a time, she had been hopeful that the virus would end up saving his life. After both Higgs and Johnson contracted Covid-19 in December, a district judge temporarily blocked the executions to allow them to recover. But Higgs warned her not to get her hopes up. It would ultimately come down to the Supreme Court. “He said, ‘Watch what they do with Corey, and then you’ll know,’” Wingate said.
By 10 p.m. on January 14, the courts had ruled against Johnson. “That’s when it really hit me that I’m going to lose my brother tomorrow,” Wingate said. In a phone call that night, Higgs admitted that he was scared. “I want you to always look at me. Just look at me. Don’t look at nobody else,” Wingate told her brother. “I’m going to be right there for you.”
The next morning, Wingate woke up with a sense of peace. Her brother’s fate was in God’s hands. For all the fear and anguish of the past few weeks, there had been moments of joy as well. She’d gotten married on January 2, and Higgs called her on her wedding day. “My brother was extremely happy for me,” she said. He trusted her new husband to take care of her. “He said to me, ‘I don’t have to worry about you no more.’”
Just before 4 p.m., Wingate walked from her car toward a white van in the parking lot of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department. A wet snow was falling hard and fast. Two Bureau of Prisons employees in blue protective gear escorted her into the vehicle, where Higgs’s spiritual adviser, Yusuf Ahmed Nur, an imam and professor at Indiana University Kokomo, was waiting. The van drove them to the penitentiary, and they were placed in a classroom, where they would wait into the night. Nur read a book while Wingate played solitaire. They were given chips and cookies but no dinner. Just before 11 p.m., the Supreme Court lifted the last barriers standing in the way of Higgs’s execution. Shortly afterward, it was time to go.
“I don’t think that it became real until the curtain went up,” Wingate said. Her brother was lying on the gurney, covered with a sheet. There were speakers that fed the sound into the witness room, but Wingate did not realize they only went one way. “I thought he could hear me so, I kept saying, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ I was motioning with my hands.” Higgs proclaimed his innocence, as he had all along. “Tell my family I love them,” he said. “Stay strong.” He was looking at his sister. “He looked at me the whole time until the very end,” she said.
On the Sunday after the executions ended, Breeden welcomed two guests to his Unitarian church in Bloomington for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service, which was streamed over Facebook. To Breeden’s left was Sister Barbara Battista, a Catholic nun from St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute. To his right was Nur. They now belonged to “a rather unwanted club,” Breeden said. Between the three of them, they had accompanied five of the 13 people executed by the Trump administration.
Nur was the first to speak. He had contracted Covid-19 in November while serving as the spiritual adviser to Orlando Hall, the eighth man to die. Despite a subsequent court order instructing the Bureau of Prisons to abide by stricter Covid-19 protocols, media witnesses said members of the execution team did not wear masks during the execution of Corey Johnson. Shortly after the church service in Bloomington, two media witnesses would test positive for Covid-19.
Nur spoke haltingly, taking long pauses as he described Higgs’s execution that Friday. In the classroom where he and Wingate waited to hear from the Supreme Court, he had found a copy of the novella “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. “I reread it slowly,” he said, absorbing the text in a way he never had before. The book was about the horrors visited upon the Congolese by King Leopold II of Belgium, he said, horrors committed by “people who described themselves as enlightened and civilized.”
“The government would like you to believe that [an execution is] a painless death,” Nur said. “It’s not. And it takes a lot out of us who witness. … You see a fellow human being killed right in front of you. And you can’t do anything about it.”
A few days later, Biden was inaugurated, and the Covid-19 lockdown over the Special Confinement Unit was lifted. “I must admit, these last 7 months have been very stressful to me and others,” one man on death row wrote in an email. The execution dates tended to come at the end of the week, late in the afternoon. “Every Friday, I was just like everyone here, praying and hoping they didn’t come to my cell, saying the Warden wanted to talk with me. … Last week was the first time since July everyone … wasn’t watching the clock around 5:30. You could feel the stress leave this place once Biden was sworn in.”
Another condemned man, who works as an orderly, went to clean the death range where his neighbors had spent their last days. “Upon entering each of the cells, intimate memories of each of them fluttered in my consciousness,” he wrote. When he entered the cell where Higgs was held, “I was surprised to see that he had spent some of his last days painting: there was pieces of used masking tape, with acrylic paint on them, on the outside corner of his shower; plus, paint splatter was on the floor and sink.”
Higgs had become an artist during his final years on death row. In an email before he was killed, he told me he’d taught himself to draw and paint as part of a larger effort at self-improvement. “I have worked relentlessly for over two decades to transform my mind by changing the way I think,” he wrote. He was formulating a plan for a business and charity and would leave instructions for his family to see it through. “I truly believe I will bring them out of poverty,” he said. “That will be my legacy.”
On Friday, January 29, Wingate buried her brother in their hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, in the cemetery where his mother is also buried. She wore a black top printed with the word “faith.” “I know that’s what’s going to help me get through this,” she said.
In a statement the night of the execution, the sister of one of the victims had acknowledged the loss for Higgs’s family. “They are now going to go through the pain we experienced,” she wrote. For Wingate, the grief comes in waves, as is often the case with mourning. But “it’s hard to explain how you feel to people because this is not a normal grief,” Wingate said. At the Indianapolis airport the day after her brother’s execution, she sat in front of the observation deck. “I was sitting there watching the planes, and then next thing you know, I’m just boohooing and crying,” Wingate said. “It just came out of nowhere.” A woman came over and asked, “‘Ma’am, are you OK?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.’”
Wingate is impatient for Biden to end the federal death penalty. “I thought that would be one of the first things he did,” she said. While she has vowed to take a break from the news and social media, she is refusing to be invisible. At a Dunkin’ Donuts in Poughkeepsie, a man saw her wearing her Abolish the Death Penalty mask and challenged her. “‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Why abolish the death penalty?’ I said, ‘So nobody else has to go through what my family went through.’ He stopped talking. He kept moving. He walked away.”