The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Missouri executes man whose advocates say had intellectual disabilities

Ernest Lee Johnson, 61, received a death sentence in 1995 for murdering three workers during a convenience store robbery a year earlier in Columbia, Mo. (AP)

An earlier version of this report said Walter Barton's execution took place in 2019. It was in May 2020.

Missouri has executed a man in a move that advocates say is unconstitutional because the death row inmate had intellectual disabilities.

Ernest Lee Johnson, 61, was pronounced dead after a lethal injection at 6:11 p.m. Central time on Tuesday at a state prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., after Gov. Michael L. Parson (R) said Monday that he would not intervene and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion by Johnson’s attorney for a stay Tuesday. The Missouri Department of Corrections confirmed the execution and shared his final statement, in which he expressed remorse for murdering three people in 1994 and thanked those who supported him.

Jeremy Weis, Johnson’s attorney, did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment Tuesday night.

Missouri is slated to execute Ernest Johnson. Lawmakers and the pope want his life to be spared.

The Vatican and two members of Congress from Missouri had urged Parson to grant clemency.

“His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, wrote on Oct 1.

That day, Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver II, both Democrats from Missouri and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, petitioned Parson to stop the execution, saying the death penalty perpetuates the same cycle of violence and trauma against Black people as “slavery and lynching did before it.”

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

Johnson, who is Black, received a death sentence in 1995 for murdering three workers during a convenience store robbery a year earlier in Columbia, Mo. His victims — Mary Bratcher, 46, Mable Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58 — were beaten with a claw hammer, and their bodies were hidden in a cooler, prosecutors said.

Missouri’s seven-member Supreme Court unanimously declined to halt Johnson’s execution, writing in its May decision that Johnson’s recollections of the crime that he later relayed to a doctor “illustrate Johnson’s ability to plan, strategize, and problem solve — contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”

Johnson’s advocates argued that he has shown signs of intellectual disability since birth and that his disability has grown more acute since a 2008 surgery to partially remove a brain tumor, along with as much as 20 percent of Johnson’s brain tissue. The result left Johnson prone to seizures and prompted him this year to request execution by firing squad because he feared painful seizures from lethal-injection drugs.

Although the use of the death penalty has declined for decades, opponents are working to hasten its end.

Most states have the death penalty. Few actually carry out executions.

Liberal opponents say it is a flawed system rife with racial bias, while a small but growing number of conservative detractors decry it as wasteful spending and government overreach. A Pew Research Center survey in June found that 60 percent of U.S. adults support the execution of people convicted of murder, a slight decrease from two years earlier.

Johnson’s lawyers and other advocates argue that in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to execute people who have intellectual disabilities, regardless of the details of the crime.

The high court, however, left the work of determining the threshold for intellectual disability to states, creating disagreements over the definition and criteria.

Missouri’s law defines intellectual disability as “substantial limitations in general functioning,” which can lead to low IQ scores, communication struggles and challenges with self-care and independent living.

Weis had said Johnson met “all statutory and clinical definitions” of intellectual disability and scored between 67 and 77 in IQ tests over the years, a range that is below and within the threshold generally recognized as intellectually disabled.

Johnson’s execution was the state’s first since May 2020, when 64-year-old Walter Barton was put to death by lethal injection in the country’s first execution during the coronavirus pandemic.

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