In recent years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported about persistent problems experienced by the state Department of Corrections in obtaining drugs to be used to carry out executions. The AJC subsequently covered last year’s passage of a state law that shields from the public and the courts details about the provider of the lethal injection drug, the qualifications of the execution team and details about the drug. The newspaper also covered court challenges to the secrecy statute.
Rhonda Cook, who has covered the death penalty and criminal justice issues for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 25 years, including more than a dozen executions as a media witness, was in Jackson Tuesday to witness Wellons’ execution.
Georgia inmate Marcus Wellons was put to death late Tuesday for the 1989 rape and murder of a Cobb County teenager in the state’s first execution where the source of its lethal-injection drug was cloaked in secrecy.
Wellons’ execution received heightened scrutiny because it was the first one in the country to be carried out since a botched execution occurred in Oklahoma seven weeks ago.
That incident ratcheted up the debate over the lethal-injection process and the use of made-to-order drugs produced by undisclosed compounding pharmacies. Even a federal appeals court judge who declined to halt the execution Tuesday cited what happened in Oklahoma as a reason why Georgia should not have a lethal-injection secrecy law.
Wellons, 58, was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. after his final appeals were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wellons apologized to the family of India Roberts the teenager he was convicted of killing and said, “I ask and hope they will find peace in my death.”
He thanked his family and friends for their love and prayers and added, “I’m going home to be with Jesus.”
Wellons hummed as prayer was being said and as the warden read the death warrant. Otherwise there was little movement visible as he lay on the gurney. He was seen to exhale a couple of times before his body seemed to quiver and then there was no more movement.
Three minutes before Wellons was declared dead a nurse standing to his left was seen asking one of the corrections officers if he was ok, just before the officer fainted.
In 1993, a Cobb County jury sentenced Wellons to death for the rape and murder of 15-year-old India Roberts in the Vinings townhouse of Wellons’ girlfriend. Wellons was supposed to be moving out of the townhouse when he abducted India as she was walking to her school bus stop the morning of Aug. 31, 1989. She was believed to have been strangled with a telephone cord.
Wellons’ trial became a focus of national attention in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing because one of Wellons’ jurors gave a penis-shaped chocolate to the judge and another juror gave breast-shaped chocolates to the courthouse bailiff shortly after the verdict. After a review, the federal appeals court said that while the gifts were “tasteless and inappropriate,” Wellons did not deserve a new trial because they played no part in the jury’s deliberations.
This week, Wellons’ case was in the spotlight again because he was to become the first Georgia inmate put to death with a compounded sedative made specifically for his execution. A state law passed last year shields the public — and even the courts — from knowing the identity of the compounding pharmacy, the qualifications of the execution team and details about the lethal-injection drug, pentobarbital. Wellons’ execution was set just days after the state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the secrecy law in a 5-2 decision issued last month.
Wellons’ attorneys had argued that the recently botched execution in Oklahoma and the lack of oversight of compounding pharmacies presented real risks that Wellons could suffer significant pain during his execution.
On April 29, condemned Oklahoma inmate Clayton Derrell Lockett writhed, gasped and struggled to lift his head after he had been declared unconscious on the lethal-injection gurney. Prison officials tried to stop the execution, but Lockett died of a massive heart attack.
A preliminary report released last week concluded that the IV line that was supposed to deliver the drugs had been improperly placed. The doctor who did the autopsy has asked for additional information to complete his report but was denied because of Oklahoma’s secrecy law regarding lethal injections.
Georgia has argued that it needs to protect the identities of lethal-injection drug providers to ensure the Department of Corrections can carry out executions. Public pressure has led pharmaceutical companies worldwide to refuse to sell such drugs to states for executions.
Georgia initially used a three-drug cocktail but it had to change its protocols to using only one — a massive dose of pentobarbital, a sedative also used to euthanize animals. The state then had to make another change, turning to a compounding pharmacy, when it was still unable to obtain the drug.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta unanimously declined to stop Wellons’ execution. The court said Wellons failed to clear a legal threshold by showing that the lethal-injection protocol to be used in his execution created a “demonstrated risk of severe pain that is substantial when compared to the known alternatives.”
But Judge Charles Wilson, writing separately, expressed concern over the state’s secrecy law. How could Wellons, the judge asked, show that he faced a risk of needless pain and suffering “when the state has passed a law prohibiting him from learning about the compound it plans to use to execute him?”
Wilson questioned the need to keep information about the lethal-injection process concealed from the public and the courts, “especially given the recent much-publicized botched execution in Oklahoma.”
“Unless judges have information about the specific nature of a method of execution,” Wilson wrote, “we cannot fulfill our constitutional role of determining whether a state’s method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment before it becomes too late.”