Image: Johnny Ray Conner
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Johnny Ray Conner asked for forgiveness repeatedly in the death chamber before being executed Wednesday.
updated 8/22/2007 8:55:29 PM ET 2007-08-23T00:55:29

A man convicted of killing a Houston convenience store clerk in 1998 was put to death Wednesday, marking the 400th execution in Texas since the state resumed capital punishment in 1982.

Texas is the nation's most active death penalty state since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. Texas resumed carrying out executions six years later.

Johnny Ray Conner, 32, asked for forgiveness repeatedly and expressed love to his family and his victim's family, who watched him through windows in the death chamber. Before he began he speaking, he asked the warden his name, for permission to speak longer than the usual two to three minutes allotted and to have his victim's daughter pointed out to him.

He specifically asked one of his victims' relatives to look at him, but she didn't and remained turned to the side with her hands clasped in prayer.

"This is destiny. This is life. This is something Allah wants me to do," he said in his lengthy statement.

"I want you to understand," he said. "I'm not mad at you. When I get to the gates of heaven I'm going to be waiting for you. Please forgive me."

"What is happening to me is unjust and the system is broken," Conner said.

He was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m., eight minutes after the lethal drugs began to flow.

Conner was the 21st put to death this year in Texas. Three more are scheduled to die next week.

Questions over an injury
Conner's lawyers earlier Wednesday lost an appeal to the Supreme Court to stop the lethal injection. In arguments rejected by the justices, Conner contended his trial attorneys were deficient for not investigating an old leg injury that left Conner with a limp. The disability would have prevented him from running away quickly from the store where Kathyanna Nguyen, 49, was gunned down on a Sunday afternoon in May 1998.

Witnesses who identified Conner as the gunman told of seeing a man running from the scene. None mentioned a limp.

A federal judge agreed with the argument and granted Conner a new trial. A federal appeals court disagreed and overturned that ruling this year, clearing the way for Conner's execution date.

Conner's trial lawyers disputed they were ineffective, saying the injury never was an issue because Conner told them his broken leg long had been healed.

Kenneth Williams, a University of Miami law professor now representing Conner, argued in his appeal that was before the Supreme Court on Wednesday that because trial attorneys failed to look into the leg injury, they were "not in a position to undermine the eyewitness testimony further and ... not able to argue to the jury that there was reasonable doubt that Mr. Conner was the assailant."

State lawyers argued Conner never complained to his trial attorneys about witnesses never referring to his limp.

Lyn McClellan, the Harris County district attorney who prosecuted the case, said Conner's complaint was a fabrication.

"They had video of him in jail walking down the hallway just fine without any limp," he said. "That's the problem with some made-up defense. You've got to live it out all the time or you get caught."

Critics blast milestone
The prospect of Conner becoming Texas' 400th executed prisoner prompted an outcry from death penalty opponents.

"Johnny Conner's execution represents 400 instances of failed public policy for Texans," the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said.

The European Union, which opposes capital punishment and bans it in its 27 nations, urged Gov. Rick Perry to stop Conner's execution and impose a death penalty moratorium.

Perry spokesman Robert Black brushed aside the criticism.

"Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens," he said.

Julian Gutierrez, a customer walking inside the store to pay for gasoline, interrupted the holdup, tried to run back outside and was shot in the shoulder. Nguyen was shot in the head.

"The clerk was in one of those cubicles where they have this bulletproof glass," McClellan said. "He was able to get his gun in there and it was kind of like being in a shooting gallery. After she complied and gave him money, he wasn't satisfied and he shot and killed her when she was in the cubicle that was supposed to protect her, preventing her from running out of the store and living."

Gutierrez survived and was among at least three people to identify Conner, whose fingerprint also was found on a bottle at the shooting scene.

Violent history
Conner, a Shreveport, La., native, had a history of assaults and drug offenses starting at age 12.

At his capital murder trial, a Harris County jury took less than an hour to convict him, then deliberated about five hours before returning with the death sentence.

Scheduled to die next is DaRoyce Mosley, set for lethal injection Tuesday for his part in the slayings of four people in the robbery of a bar in Kilgore in East Texas in 1994.

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