Christopher Johnson is set to die in Holman prison's lethal injection chamber
Alabama is scheduled to execute on Thursday evening a prisoner who has voluntarily waived all his rights to an appeal, raising the possibility that the state is about to carry out what amounts to a government-assisted suicide.
Barring a last-minute legal intervention, Christopher Johnson will die by lethal injection at Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama. The prisoner is one of scores of so-called "volunteers" – death row prisoners who do nothing to resist their execution and in some cases actively court it.
The most famous example of the phenomenon was Gary Gilmore, who became internationally famous after he insisted on being put to death, which he was in January 1977. The Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, also waived his remaining appeals without explanation before he was put to death in June 2001.
In Johnson's case, he was sentenced to death for killing his six-month-old son Elias in February 2005. At his trial, Johnson insisted on representing himself in parts of the proceedings and told the jury he suffocated the child because he was angry with his wife.
Ever since the trial, Johnson, 38, has consistently refused to pursue any legal moves that might delay or prevent his execution, and has turned down any chance of an appeal.
"Volunteers" such as Johnson have raised concern among lawyers and civil rights groups who question the mental health of those who go willingly to their deaths, or see it as a form of state-sponsored suicide. The most extensive research into the subject was carried out by John Blume, a professor at Cornell law school.
Blume studied the cases of 93 death row inmates who set aside legal appeals and allowed their executions to go ahead between 1977 and 2003. Of those, 88% had histories of having struggled with mental illness or drug abuse.
Blume also found a striking similarity between the mental health profiles of "volunteers" and those of individuals who kill themselves in the free world. Many cases showed symptoms of schizophrenia or depressive disorders.
"That raises the question: are these executions carrying out a lawful punishment, or are they a form of state-assisted suicide?" Blume told the Guardian.
Blume points out that the current legal process does not allow for any examination of the motivation of a prisoner who drops their right to an appeal before execution. Conditions on death row – where prisoners are kept in almost total isolation for years on end – are also highly conducive to suicidal feelings.
"We know that social isolation is a major factor behind suicides, and spending 23 hours alone in your cell with nothing to do is certainly a form of social isolation," Blume said.
Johnson's imminent execution has been marked by virtually no opposition or outcry from organisations and individuals. One of the few bodies to raise objections has been Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, a campaign against capital punishment that is run by a board comprised of Alabama's death row inmates themselves.
Esther Brown, the executive director of the group, who acts as the external organiser, says that as an organisation led by death row inmates it respected Johnson's wishes. But it also had concerns about his mental health. He was never seen in the exercise yard and spent all his time alone in his cell.
"Of course Christopher Johnson is mentally unstable," said Brown. "Anyone who chooses to represent himself in a capital punishment case must be mentally unstable. And yes, how can this be anything but assisted suicide?"
Jack Carney, a lawyer based in Birmingham, Alabama who sits on the external advisory board of Project Hope, said Alabama needed to reflect on what it was doing. "Johnson was convicted of killing his own son, and as a parent myself I might feel suicidal if I had done that. But that doesn't make executing him right – that is just aiding him in taking his own life."
Carney said that it was ironic that the governor of Alabama, who has the power to commute the death sentence, is Robert Bentley, a strongly pro-life Christian who worked as a medical doctor before he entered politics.
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