updated 10/19/2006 7:41:35 PM ET 2006-10-19T23:41:35

A convicted killer facing lethal injection beat the executioner to it Thursday, committing suicide by slitting his throat and arm with a blade in his Texas death row cell 15 hours before he was supposed to die.

Michael Dewayne Johnson, 29, was found in a pool of blood by officers making routine checks on him every 15 minutes, authorities said. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Johnson apparently scrawled words in blood on the wall of his cell, but prison officials would not say what he wrote.

He is at least the seventh condemned man in Texas to take his own life since death row reopened in 1974.

No other prisoner has killed himself so close to his scheduled execution time. In 1999, a death row inmate took an overdose of prescription drugs. He was hospitalized, then executed two days later.

Johnson had been set to die for the 1995 slaying of Jeff Wetterman, 27, gunned down at his family-run gasoline station and convenience store near Waco.

Unclear how inmate fashioned blade
Prison system spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said that 15 minutes before Johnson was discovered, he was talking to the staff and awaiting breakfast, and gave no indication he was contemplating suicide.

He used a sharp piece of metal attached to what looked like a wooden Popsicle stick, Lyons said.

It was unclear if the cutting edge was a razor blade or a sharpened piece of metal, or where he got it, authorities said. Some inmates are allowed to check out a razor blade to shave but must return it to a guard when they are finished, Lyons said.

Besides the routine 15-minute checks that begin for inmates 36 hours before their execution, officers on death row in Texas routinely search the prisoner’s cell every 72 hours for contraband.

Johnson would have been the 22nd Texas inmate executed this year. The state has 390 people on death row.

Johnson’s appeal was before the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a plea from him last week.

His lawyer, Greg White, said he had seen no indication that the condemned man was despondent.

“I’ve never seen him not in good spirits,” White 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.”

Johnson, who as 18 at the time of the slaying, insisted it was a companion, David Vest, who had gunned down Wetterman as the pair, driving a stolen car, fled the convenience store because they did not have the $24 to pay for their gas.

Vest blamed the shooting on Johnson, received an eight-year prison sentence in a plea bargain and testified against his friend. Vest is now free.

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