Thursday, October 7, 2021

Missouri man executed for killing three convenience store workers

The 7th Execution of 2021

A Missouri man, Ernest Lee Johnson, was on death row at a state prison in Bonne Terre. He was executed by lethal injection at 6:11 p.m. on October 5, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. 

He was convicted of beating three people to death during a 1994 convenience store robbery. He was executed despite calls for clemency from Pope Francis and other supporters who said the man’s intellectual disabilities made the execution unconstitutional, reported The New York Times.

In his last statement, which was released by the department, Mr. Johnson said he was sorry and had remorse for what he did.

“I want to say that I love my family and friends,” he wrote, adding that he was thankful for his lawyer. “For all the people that has prayed for me I thank them.”

In addition to the pope, those who called for clemency included two members of Congress. They asked Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri to stop the execution, saying Mr. Johnson should have been spared because he was intellectually disabled.

On Monday, the governor said in a statement that Mr. Johnson would be executed on Tuesday as scheduled. “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,” Mr. Parson said.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a request to stop the execution, which went ahead as scheduled.

Mr. Johnson’s public defender, Jeremy Weis, said earlier that the Missouri Supreme Court in August denied Mr. Johnson’s petition that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he was intellectually disabled. The court also denied Mr. Johnson’s request to be executed by firing squad, Mr. Weis said.

On Sept. 27, Francis appealed to Mr. Parson to spare Mr. Johnson’s life. On Friday, Representatives Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver II, both Democrats of Missouri, also asked Mr. Parson, a Republican, to spare Mr. Johnson, saying that it would be unconstitutional to execute him because of his intellectual disabilities.

The pope’s appeal was made in a letter to Mr. Parson from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. It came two years after Francis changed church doctrine by declaring that executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity.

In the letter, which was reported by Vatican News, Francis said his appeal was not “based solely upon Mr. Johnson’s doubtful intellectual capacity.”

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

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing intellectually disabled people is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The last time Missouri carried out an execution was in May 2020, when Walter Barton was put to death by lethal injection for fatally stabbing an 81-year-old woman in 1991.

Using a hammer as a weapon, Mr. Johnson killed three convenience store employees — Mary Bratcher, 46; Fred Jones, 58; and Mabel Scruggs, 57 — in Columbia, Mo., in February 1994 as he was robbing the store for money to buy drugs, court documents say. A jury in Boone County, Mo., convicted him in 2005 on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death, the documents say.

After several court challenges over the years centering on Mr. Johnson’s intellectual tests and abilities, the state Supreme Court ruled in August that his recollections of details of the crime showed he was able “to plan, strategize, and problem solve — contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”

Mr. Johnson was born in Steele, Mo., in 1960 and grew up in Charleston, Mo., Ms. Bush and Mr. Cleaver wrote in their letter. His father was a sharecropper, they said, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother.

Johnson was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The Associated Press reported that up to 20 percent of Mr. Johnson’s brain tissue was removed during an operation in 2008 to remove a brain tumor.

“Mr. Johnson’s execution would be a grave act of injustice,” Ms. Bush and Mr. Cleaver wrote.

In an opinion piece in The Kansas City Star on Sunday, Bob Holden, a Democratic former governor of Missouri, said he had sent a letter to Mr. Parson seeking clemency for Mr. Johnson. Mr. Holden said that he supported capital punishment, noting that 20 men were executed during his tenure as governor, from 2001 to 2005.

“I also realize, however, there are unique occasions when the people of our state are wisely served by the governor exercising the office’s clemency powers,” Mr. Holden wrote. “The scheduled Oct. 5 execution of Ernest Johnson, I believe, is one such instance.”

Mr. Johnson, he wrote, had a “paper trail” of mental health professionals documenting his intellectual disabilities. His brain development may have been stymied by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Mr. Holden wrote, citing low I.Q. scores, adding that his communication skills were “less than those of a typical 5-year-old.”

“None of this excuses what Johnson did,” Mr. Holden 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.”

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