Alabama set to execute man for 2005 death of his infant son

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2011 9:23 AM
Alabama set to execute man for 2005 death of his infant son

By Kelli Dugan

MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - An Alabama man who has spent just four years on death row for the suffocation and beating death of his infant son is set to die by lethal injection on Thursday.

The execution of Christopher Thomas Johnson, 39, is scheduled for 6 p.m. local time at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

Johnson made the rare move of pleading guilty to capital murder in the 2005 death of his 6-month-old son Elias Ocean Johnson. The inmate requested the death penalty, which was granted in February 2007, and waived all appellate and intervention measures on his behalf.

One law professor said Johnson's brief stay on death row is unusual and could possibly be among the shortest on record nationwide.

Donald Q. Cochran, a former prosecutor and a professor at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, said the only other case he could recall following such an abrupt timeline was that of confessed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

McVeigh was executed in 2001, six years after committing his crime.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average time an inmate spends on death row awaiting execution is 14 years, with many waiting longer than 20 years.

Johnson would be the sixth inmate executed in Alabama this year and the 38th put to death nationwide in 2011.

Johnson represented himself at trial. He testified he killed his son because "he hated his wife, didn't want to be near her and didn't want to worry about her threats of putting him in jail for alimony or child support," according to documents filed by the state Attorney General's Office.

Johnson offered no mitigating circumstances for his crime, and the trial court found the "the heinous, atrocious and cruel" nature of the murder outweighed any justifications that could have been offered, records show.

According to court documents, Johnson tried to quiet Elias while his wife slept.

After several unsuccessful attempts in the early morning hours, he "laid on top of Elias, covered Elias' mouth with his hand for extended periods of time, and forced his fingers into the child's mouth and down his throat to stop the crying." He also struck the child with his hand.

When the child's mother awoke, Elias was unresponsive and cold to the touch.

The forensic pathologist who performed Elias' autopsy testified during the trial that the infant suffered at least 85 separate injuries. Suffocation and head trauma were cited as the causes of death.

In a statement issued by Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, executive director Esther Brown said even though the organization respects Johnson's right to have the death penalty imposed, they questioned his motives.

"We are a prisoner organization and therefore respect a prisoner's wishes. Nevertheless, we question Mr. Johnson's mental stability, which would allow him to make this kind of decision," Brown said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)