STARKE, FL - Florida on Wednesday executed a Tampa-area man who murdered his estranged wife and her young son in 1985, two years after he had been paroled for killing his previous spouse.
It was the third U.S. execution in less than 24 hours since a botched April lethal injection in Oklahoma.
John Ruthell Henry, 63, was pronounced dead at 7:43 p.m. after receiving a lethal injection for the stabbing death of Suzanne Henry. He also was convicted of stabbing her 5-year-old son, Eugene Christian, hours after the woman's murder.
The U.S. Supreme Court and a federal appeals court refused last-ditch efforts by Henry's lawyers to block the execution. In recent months, Henry's attorneys have questioned whether his client was mentally stable enough to comprehend his death sentence. But the high court rejected that appeal.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Georgia and Missouri carried out separate executions. Neither execution had any noticeable complications, and Henry's execution Wednesday also appeared to go normally.
Georgia and Missouri both use the single drug pentobarbital, a sedative. Florida uses a three-drug combination of midazolam hydrochloride, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Midazolam, a sedative used before surgery, has been used in Florida only since October; previously, sodium thiopental was used, but its U.S. manufacturer stopped making it, and Europe banned its manufacturers from exporting it for executions.
During the first Florida execution using midazolam, it appeared to an Associated Press reporter that it took longer for inmate William Happ to lose consciousness than others who have been executed under the previous drug mix. In the six executions since, the process has appeared to go normally.
Henry's demeanor seemed calm as the administration of the lethal drugs began at 7:32 p.m. His lips moved softly for several minutes, but witnesses couldn't hear what, if anything, he was saying. He eventually closed his eyes and went motionless.
Nine executions nationwide have been stayed or postponed since late April, when Oklahoma prison officials halted the execution of Clayton Lockett after noting that the lethal injection drugs weren't being administered into his vein properly. Lockett died of a heart attack several minutes later.
Lockett's death amplified a national debate about the secretive ways many states obtain lethal injection drugs from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies. Lawyers for death row inmates have cited concerns that what happened in Oklahoma could be repeated. Before Tuesday, nine executions were stayed or delayed - albeit some for reasons not related to the drug question.
Amid the court battles, many pro-death penalty states kept pushing to resume executions, including the three carried out during the quick burst this week.
Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, said there has been a regional divide when it comes to how quickly states are returning to the business of putting prisoners to death.
"I think what you're going to see is kind of a division where some areas, some states, predominantly in the South, are going to dig in their heels," Sarat said. "Other states are going to proceed more cautiously and impose, if not an official moratorium, more of a de facto moratorium until things get sorted out."
Four states are responsible for 21 of the 23 executions so far this year: Texas with seven, Florida with six, Missouri with five and Oklahoma with three. Georgia and Ohio have each performed one.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that opposes executions and tracks the issue, said that while 32 states still have the death penalty on the books, the number of states actually performing executions has dropped sharply. Pennsylvania, for example, still has the death penalty but hasn't executed anyone since 1999. Utah has had one execution since 2000. Maryland and Washington had two in that same span.
As recently as 2011, 13 states carried out capital punishment. In 1999, 20 states carried out 98 executions, a modern high.
"Places like Missouri and Florida - not only is there political will, but the courts are allowing these things to go forward in secrecy and despite problems with the new drugs," Dieter said.
Henry's was the 18th execution since Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011.
Scott on Tuesday brushed aside questions about the state's execution procedures, saying he has to "uphold the laws of the land."
When asked directly if he had discussed with the Department of Corrections what happened in Oklahoma and whether any changes were needed in Florida, Scott would only say: "I focus on making sure that we do things the right way here."
Henry had previously pleaded no contest to second-degree murder for stabbing his common-law wife, Patricia Roddy, in 1976. He served less than eight years in prison before being released in 1983. He had been on parole for two years when he killed his wife and the boy. Suzanne Henry's relatives told reporters she hadn't known about John Henry's previous killing when she married him after his release.
Just before his execution, Henry asked for forgiveness and apologized for what he'd done.
"I can't undo what I've done. If I could, I would. I ask for your forgiveness if you can find it in your heart," he said.
Speaking at a news conference after the execution, Suzanne Henry's niece, Selena Geiger, said she did not forgive the man who killed her aunt and cousin when she was 10 years old.
"What was my cousin going through when he watched his mother die?" Geiger said. "What was he going through when this man took him to the woods and killed him?"
Geiger said the execution, though, has given the family some sense of relief.
"I feel that my family can finally rest," Geiger said. "My grandmother and grandfather can finally have some peace. We have some closure."
During Henry's trial, prosecutors said the unemployed bricklayer went to Suzanne Henry's home three days before Christmas of 1985 to talk about buying a gift for the boy, who was Suzanne's son from a prior relationship. They fought over Henry living with another woman, and he stabbed her 13 times in the neck and face.
Prosecutors said Henry then took the boy and drove around for nine hours, sometimes smoking crack cocaine, before stabbing him five times in the neck.
Hours later, Henry told a detective, he found himself wandering a field. He later told therapists he had killed the child to reunite him with his mother.
Henry tried to use an insanity defense for killing his wife.
Psychiatrists at the trial testified that Henry had a low IQ, suffered from chronic paranoia and smoked crack. He told them he had intended to commit suicide after killing the boy but said he was unable to go through with it.
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