Ernest Lee Johnson, convicted of the 1994 murder of three Columbia Casey General Store employees, is due to be executed in October.
The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the execution for October 5th at 6 p.m. at Bonne Terre State Prison. It would be the first execution in the state since the execution of convicted murderer Walter Barton in May 2020.
Johnson, 60, had requested his execution by firing squad, but the US Supreme Court declined to consider his appeal last month. The court left a lower court judgment that could allow an execution by injection. Missouri law does not allow execution by firing squad.
Johnson has argued that the deadly injection drug, pentobarbital from Missouri, could induce seizures due to a brain disease. Johnson still has part of a benign tumor in his brain.
Johnson was convicted of three first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Casey’s associates Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs, and Fred Jones.
Missourians for alternatives to the death penalty are awaiting a response to an active habeas petition on behalf of Johnson due by the state by next week, the group said.
“I’m not surprised that the attorney general’s office is pushing for the execution of a mentally retarded man,” Missourians for Alternatives state director Elyse Max wrote in a press release. “I am very concerned that the courts would set an execution date if they awaited a response from the state regarding the constitutionality of the intellectual disability determination.”
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Appeals have confirmed his conviction, but previously overturned death sentences and granted new sentences. This was due to errors in presenting evidence of Johnson’s intellectual / developmental disability, Missourians for Alternatives said.
Johnson’s extensive IQ tests show he has sub-par intellectual function well in the realm of sub-par intelligence as required by Missouri law, the group said.
A 2002 US Supreme Court ruling found that people with an intellectual / developmental disability could not be executed, but left it up to states to decide how to define people with such a disability in court.
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“A person must demonstrate that they have significantly below average intelligence, continuous and extensive related deficits in two or more adaptive functions, and onset of intellectual disability before the age of 18,” said Missourians for Alternatives. “Johnson objectively fulfills all three categories.”
Johnson’s attorneys found, through what doctors said, combined with historical data, that he met the legal definition of I / DD, Missourians for Alternatives said.
The jury in his third sentence in 2006 recommended death by lethal injection.
Johnson’s attorney Jeremy Weis argued that the jury was not given clear instructions on how the clinical definition of Johnson’s disability should be applied to the facts.
“This hampered their ability to take into account his condition, which resulted in a verdict that was inconsistent with the evidence presented,” he said.
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Johnson’s habeas petition calls on the courts to appoint a special master who convenes a panel of clinicians and experts to investigate his disability claim.
Johnson also had brain surgery in 2008 to remove a tumor and part of his brain. He could have painful complications from the drugs used in the execution if it gets through, Missourians for Alternatives said. They argue that the scar tissue from the brain surgery could cause a seizure.
“Not only will Johnson’s execution violate his Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, Johnson should also not be eligible for execution for meeting objective standards for (intellectual disability),” Max said.
Charles Dunlap of the Tribune and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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