Execution-bound convict commits suicide
McLennan County killer slashes neck and arm arteries hours before scheduled execution.
By Mike Ward
Friday, October 20, 2006
Condemned McLennan County killer Michael Dewayne Johnson committed suicide early Thursday in his death row cell less than 16 hours before his scheduled execution, prison officials said.
Left behind was a message scrawled in blood on the cell wall: "I didn't shoot him."
Authorities said Johnson, 29, apparently used a metal blade or razor to cut his right jugular vein and an artery inside his left elbow about 2:45 a.m. at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston, east of Huntsville.
At the time, one official said, a nurse was nearby, treating another prisoner, but life-saving efforts proved futile because Johnson lost so much blood so quickly. The official asked not to be identified because of agency policy against speaking to the media and because an investigation into the death is ongoing.
"There was a tremendous amount of blood, very quickly, everywhere," the official said.
The initial investigation indicated that Johnson likely slit his arm first, wrote the message on the wall and then cut his throat.
Johnson was taken to a Livingston hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 3:40 a.m. An autopsy was scheduled as part of the investigation, officials said.
Prison officials said Johnson left several suicide notes. Officials withheld the contents as part of the continuing investigation.
Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, said Johnson was scheduled to be executed shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday for the Sept. 10, 1995, shooting death of Jeff Wetterman, a 27-year-old convenience store clerk in Lorena, near Waco.
Wetterman was shot in the face with a 9 mm pistol after he helped Johnson and another man, identified by prison officials as David Vest, fill their vehicle with gas, a prison report shows.
Although the report posted on the prison system's Web site identifies Johnson as the shooter in the attack, his brother, Jack, took issue with that in an e-mail message to the American-Statesman. He said the killer was Vest.
Vest blamed the shooting on Johnson, took an eight-year prison term in a plea bargain and testified against his friend. Vest was freed in September 2003 after completing his sentence, Lyons said.
Lyons said convicts facing execution are placed on a "death watch," in which they are checked every 15 minutes, within 36 hours of the sentence being carried out. Johnson had been observed by guards about 2:30 a.m., just before he was to be served breakfast, according to Lyons.
"He had visits with his family (on Wednesday) and was scheduled to have another four hours with them today," she said Thursday. "There was no indication he might try this."
Investigators were attempting to determine how Johnson got the blade or razor in his cell. Shaving razors are checked out to convicts and then retrieved by guards, under prison policy. Cells of death row inmates are searched when they are moved to a special wing after being assigned an execution date, and their cells are routinely searched for contraband every 72 hours, although officials were unsure when Johnson's cell was last searched.
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.
Lyons said officials could recall no suicide on death row so close to an execution date.
Johnson would have been the 22nd Texas inmate executed this year.
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 was 18 at the time of the shooting, insisted it was Vest who had gunned down Wetterman after the pair, in a stolen car, fled the store on Interstate 35 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!' "