Missouri is scheduled to on Tuesday execute a man who in 1994 killed three people at a Columbia Casey’s store. Ernest Lee Johnson was convicted of killing Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs, and Fred Jones using a hammer.
His attorney, Jeremy Weis, is trying to get that execution postponed or stopped altogether. He and Johnson don’t dispute that Johnson committed the murders.
Weis is asking the state Supreme Court to appoint a special investigator to consider his argument that Johnson is intellectually disabled, which would disqualify him for the death penalty.
Weis said testing of Johnson over more than 40 years establishes deficits in intellectual functioning. He said in Johnson’s trial the jury was given instructions including a clinical definition of intellectual disability but no guidance. He said that hampered their ability to consider his condition.
“If you don’t understand what an adaptive function is, there’s no definition that the court gave them. If you don’t understand what it means to have onset before the age of 18 and whether it’s documented before the age of 18, the court didn’t give any guidance on that. They didn’t talk about IQ scores, and what IQ score would qualify, what IQ score wouldn’t, margin of error – things like that,” said Weis.
Weis also argues that Johnson is prone to seizures after a 2008 operation to remove part of a brain tumor, and that the pentobarbital used in executions in Missouri poses the risk of violent and uncontrollable seizures in Johnson. He argues that this would violate Johnson’s right not to suffer cruel and unusual punishment. Weis is arguing that lethal gas would reduce the risk of pain to Johnson.
Lethal gas is the method of execution used by Missouri from 1937 until 1965. It is still in Missouri law as a method that can be used, but the state does not have a functional gas chamber.
Weis also represents Kimber Edwards who was scheduled to be executed in October, but Governor Jay Nixon commuted his sentence to life in prison.
If Johnson’s appeals and a request of Governor Nixon for clemency are not successful, Johnson will be executed between 6 p.m. Tuesday night at 5:59 p.m. Wednesday night at the state prison in Bonne Terre.