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Missouri Plans To Execute Man, Despite Pleas From Pope And Others to Spare His Life

Missouri plans to execute Ernest Lee Johnson by lethal injection. His supporters claim the execution violates the constitution because Johnson is intellectually disabled.

By Constance Johnson
Pope Francis Ernest Johnson G Ap

Missouri plans to execute a 61-year-old man with an intellectual disability on Tuesday night by lethal injection, despite pleas from high-profile figures such as Pope Francis and others to spare his life.

Ernest Lee Johnson is on death row at a state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri for the 1994 murders of three convenience store workers – Mary Bratcher, 46, Fred Jones, 58 and Mabel Scruggs, 57. He was convicted in 2005 on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, according to court documents.

“The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court order,” Governor Mike Parson said in a statement.

The statement alleges that Johnson went to “great lengths to plan and conceal his crime … Mr. Johnson’s claim that he is not competent to be executed has been reviewed and rejected by a jury and the courts six different times, including a unanimous decision by the Missouri State Supreme Court.”

Johnson’s lawyer, Jeremy Weis, told the Associated Press that he was “very disappointed” by the decision.

“We believe we made a compelling case to him that it was the right moral decision and I guess he disagreed,” Weis told AP.

Weiss said Johnson’s execution would violate the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits executing intellectually disabled people. Weis said that multiple IQ tests and other exams have proven that Johnson has the intellectual capacity of child. Johnson was also born with fetal alcohol syndrome and in 2008, he lost about 20% of his brain tissue to the removal of a benign tumor, Weis told AP.

The pope made his appeal in a letter to the Governor from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, according to Vatican News. The pontiff 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.

Two members of Congress from Missouri– Representatives Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City – have also made pleas to spare Johnson’s life. 

“Mr. Johnson’s execution would be a grave act of injustice,” the representatives wrote in a joint statement. “Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and Brown communities. We urge you to correct these injustices using every tool available, including the power to grant clemency.

Weis told the New York Times that the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson’s petition that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he is intellectual disabled.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Johnson's request to be put to death by firing squad. His legal team had argued that the chemicals used in lethal injection could trigger a torturous epileptic seizure because of his brain surgery. 


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