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Convicted killer Ernest Johnson executed despite questions over his intellectual capacity

Despite appeals from Pope Francis, 2 members of Congress and a former governor, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said the state would "carry out the lawful sentence."
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Missouri on Tuesday executed Ernest Johnson, despite claims by his attorney and death penalty opponents that he had an intellectual disability and killing him violated the Constitution.

Johnson, 61, who was convicted in the murders of three convenience store employees almost three decades ago, was executed by lethal injection at a state prison in Bonne Terre. He was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m. local time, a spokeswoman for the state department of corrections said.

Pope Francis, two members of Congress and former Democratic governor Bob Holden were among those who spoke out against the execution.

On Monday Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, denied Johnson clemency and said the state would carry out the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for a stay of execution Tuesday.

In a filing to the high court Tuesday, Johnson's legal team reiterated IQ tests have indicated he had the intellectual capacity of a child and wrote that there would be "no tangible harm" if his execution was delayed while questions over whether lower courts had "constitutionally considered" his disability were further explored.

Ernest Johnson.
Ernest Johnson.Jeremy Weis

"This Court has said states simply cannot execute the intellectually disabled," Johnson's attorneys wrote, referring to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling.

Johnson's execution was the first by Missouri prison officials since May 2020, as the pandemic put a hold on states' death chamber operations before Texas jump-started the practice this year.

Four relatives of the three people Johnson killed in 1994 were present, the spokeswoman said. A media witness said that Johnson's breathing became labored but there were no visible signs of distress.

Among Johnson's supporters were Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver, who urged Parson to reconsider his position.

Bush, a racial justice activist, has also noted the racial disparities that the prison system and death penalty have had on Black and Latino men, and believes that executing Johnson, who is Black, doesn't address the systemic issues.

"Time is running out," Bush tweeted.

Francis last week expressed his support for Johnson, according to a letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, in which he says the pontiff urged Parson to grant the inmate "some appropriate form of clemency."

Francis declined to weigh in on the "circumstances of the crime," but rather highlighted a larger moral choice that must be considered, according to the letter.

"His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of all human life," Pierre wrote.

Parson said this week that Johnson was competent to be put to death, noting that the courts over the years, including Missouri's highest court, have rejected his appeals.

"The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court's order," he said in a statement.

Johnson had also asked to be executed by firing squad, which the Missouri Supreme Court denied in August.

Last May, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up Johnson's case after his attorney argued that brain damage puts him at risk of severe and painful seizures if executed by lethal injection.

Image: a scan of Ernest John’s brain showing a hole in his skull and brain missing
A scan of Ernest Johnson's brain showing a hole in his skull and brain missing, according to a court affidavit.

Attorney Jeremy Weis said Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and also lost one-fifth of his brain tissue with the removal of a benign tumor in 2008. That brain defect, which left a small hole in his skull, scar tissue and a blank space where the tumor was removed, could inflict further pain, he added.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, wrote in a response Monday to Johnson's stay of execution request that what he was convicted of doing in 1994 belies his claims of an intellectual disability.

"The facts of the offense plainly reflect the offender's ability to plan, strategize, calculate, and scheme effectively," the state wrote to the high court.

Prosecutors said Johnson used a claw hammer to fatally bludgeon a manager, Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58, during a closing-time robbery at the Casey’s General Store in Columbia on Feb. 12, 1994. He was stealing money for drugs, according to court documents.

Some of the victims' family members were in favor of putting him to death for his actions.

"I don't want to sound inhumane, but if there's any pain, so be it," Bratcher's son, Rob, said in 2015.

Bob Holden, who was Missouri's governor from 2001 to 2005, wrote Sunday in The Kansas City Star that while his office oversaw 20 executions, Johnson's case is an outlier because of the questions over his intellectual capacity.

"None of this excuses what Johnson did," he wrote. "But if our state is to be guided by the rule of law, we must temper our understandable anger with reason and compassion for the most vulnerable among us, including Ernest Johnson."