Oct. 19, 2006, 6:38PM
Texas inmate kills himself hours before execution
By staff and wire reports
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Facing lethal injection later in the day, condemned Texas prisoner Michael Dewayne Johnson beat the executioner to it today, fatally slashing his throat and arm in his death row cell just over 15 hours before he was scheduled to die.
Johnson, 29, was found in a pool of blood and unresponsive at 2:45 a.m. by officers making routine checks on him every 15 minutes at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Fifteen minutes earlier, he was talking to prison staff and awaiting breakfast.
"He had used some sort of metal blade or razor to cut his right jugular vein and an artery inside his right elbow," prison system spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said. "He had made no indications that he was contemplating suicide."
Words written in blood were on the wall of his cell, but prison officials declined to disclose the nature of the writing because Johnson's death remained under investigation, Lyons said.
Johnson was taken to a hospital in Livingston, a few miles away, where he was pronounced dead about an hour after he was found.
He had been set to die after 6 p.m. Thursday for the 1995 slaying of Jeff Wetterman, 27, gunned down at his family-run gasoline station and convenience store in Lorena, just south of Waco.
On learning of the suicide, Bill Wetterman Jr., the victim's brother, said he felt the state had been cheated out of justice. "We've waited 11 years for this,'' he said of the scheduled execution. "It should have happened sooner.''
Johnson is at least the seventh condemned man in Texas to take his own life since death row reopened in 1974, but no other prisoner has killed himself so close to his scheduled execution time. On Dec. 8, 1999, inmate David Long was executed two days after he tried to overdose on prescription medication.
Authorities were not immediately certain where he would have obtained the piece of metal that had been attached to a small wooden stick, which Lyons described as resembling a Popsicle stick.
It also was unclear whether the metal was a razor blade or a metal piece that had been sharpened. Some inmates are allowed to shave but must check out a razor and return it to a corrections officer when they are finished, Lyons said.
Besides the routine 15-minute checks that begin for inmates 36 hours before their scheduled execution, officers on death row in Texas also routinely search the inmate's cell every 72 hours for contraband.
An appeal to block the punishment was in the U.S. Supreme Court, where Johnson's lawyer Greg White was asking justices to reconsider their rejection last week of an earlier appeal. White also said he had worked until 2 a.m. on another round of last-day appeals and had notified state and federal appeals courts they would be filed early Thursday.
"No point in filing that stuff," White said. "It's just sitting in a chair in my office."
White also said he had no indication that Johnson was despondent.
"I've never seen him not in good spirits," the lawyer said. "I'm not trained in those things, but just from a common person's standpoint, we just never had conversation that he was near the end and 'I'm doomed' and any of that kind of stuff."
Crawford Long, an assistant district attorney in McLennan County who prosecuted Johnson, said he also was surprised.
"We were prepared to be handling a last-minute filing with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals," Long said.
Johnson would have been the 22nd Texas inmate executed this year. The total is the highest in the nation among states with capital punishment.
As part of the usual procedure, he would have been taken about midday today from the Polunsky Unit, where the inmate population includes the state's now 380 condemned men, to the Huntsville Unit's death chamber, about 45 miles to the west.
In an interview with The Associated Press two weeks ago, Johnson said he remained optimistic.
"You never know what the courts are going to do," he said.
Johnson, who as 18 at the time, insisted it was a companion, David Vest, who had gunned down Wetterman in September 1995 after the pair, in a stolen car, fled the store on Interstate 35 about 12 miles south of Waco because they didn't have the $24 to pay for their gas.
"I never even saw the dude," Johnson said. "(Vest) jumped back into the car and we took off. He hollered: 'Go! Go! Go!'"
Vest blamed the shooting on Johnson, took an eight-year prison term in a plea bargain and testified against his friend. Vest is now free.
Johnson was involved with other teenagers in what authorities said was a stolen car ring in Balch Springs, near Dallas, when he was arrested for the Wetterman slaying. At the time of the shooting, he was in a stolen Cadillac. The 9 mm pistol used in the shooting also was stolen.
Johnson and Vest were heading to Corpus Christi for a day at the beach to celebrate Vest's 17th birthday. With fuel low, and without cash, they pulled into the Lorena Fastime store on the Interstate 35 frontage road about 12 miles south of Waco. It was the practice at the store to help motorists with their fuel purchase.
"I guess Johnson was afraid if they drove off he'd get the license number and then police would be looking for them,'' said Crawford Long, an assistant district attorney in McLennan County. "They didn't have money to pay for the gas, and he just shot him in the head and killed him.''
A friend testified at Johnson's trial that Johnson told him he shot Wetterman after Vest said, "Shoot!" Vest said he had uttered a similar-sounding expletive when he saw Wetterman come out to help them and knowing they didn't have the $24 to pay for the gasoline.
"I've never signed a statement, never signed any confession," Johnson said.
Vest, in his confession, admitted to the shooting. At Johnson's trial, he testified his companion was the shooter. Vest's confession improperly was suppressed by prosecutors using ``trickery and deceit'' and knowlingly using false evidence to deprive Johnson of a fair trial, Johnson attorney Greg White said in his Supreme Court appeal.
"What he's trying to do is really ridiculous," Long said. "We indicted Vest as if he was the shooter. We indicted both of them that way. And Vest signed a stipulation of evidence that the indictment was correct.
"Now his defense attorney is trying to say Vest was admitting to the crime and being the shooter. It's simply not true." Long also denied hiding the Vest confession, saying it was introduced to the trial judge and filed as part of the court record.
"He unquestionably was guilty," Long said. "He had made admissions to a number of people."
Four other Texas inmates are scheduled to die over the next month.
Chronicle reporter Allan Turner contributed to this report.