At 6:11 p.m. Tuesday, Ernest Lee Johnson was pronounced dead at the state prison in Bonne Terre. After being sentenced to death nearly 23 years ago, he died by lethal injection at the maximum-security prison in southeast Missouri.
Johnson, 61, was convicted of murdering three people with a hammer during a 1994 robbery at a gas station in central Missouri’s Columbia. All three victims were store employees: Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mabel Scruggs.
The gas station has since been demolished.
Minutes before Johnson’s execution, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to put a stop to the death sentence.
Johnson’s lawyer fought off the inmate’s death sentence a number of times, including in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay after Johnson’s lawyers argued the inmate has scar tissue that remains after a 2008 surgery to remove a brain tumor. Johnson’s lawyers say lethal injection would pose a risk of violent seizures in Johnson.
The man, from Steel, Missouri, wanted his execution to be carried out by a firing squad but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider his appeal. Missouri law does not allow executions by firing squad.
After Johnson was given the lethal injection today, he did not show any signs of distress.
A coalition of Missouri groups says Johnson meets the state statutory and clinical standards to be diagnosed with an intellectual or a developmental disability – making him not competent to be executed. Last week, the ACLU of Missouri, Missouri Catholic Conference, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and others delivered to the Governor’s Office more than 23,000 petitions calling for the governor to switch Johnson’s sentence to life in prison without parole.
Nimrod Chapel, with the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, says prosecutors have looked past the clinical evidence of Johnson’s disability.
“In Missouri, there’s a different standard when it’s come to Mr. Ernest Johnson. And I think that there are multiple backers that have come into play in that regard. It is his race, his subject property, you know his intellectual disability. Executing a person who has an intellectual disability doesn’t demonstrate or serve any of those proposed justifications for the death penalty. What it does is you’re executing somebody who may not fully comprehend that they’re being executed. And that’s the case with Mr. Johnson,” says Chapel.
According to Missouri Department of Corrections Spokesperson Karen Pojmann, 59 protesters showed up outside the prison for the execution. Protesters are required to position in a certain area outside the prison.
The pope also asked Gov. Mike Parson to halt the execution.
Parson declined Johnson’s request to halt the execution and instead give the man life in prison without parole.
“The evidence showed Mr. Johnson went to great lengths to plan and conceal his crime. Three juries have reviewed Mr. Johnson’s case and recommended a sentence of death. 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 Supreme Court. Mr. Johnson has received due process under the laws in the state trial court, Missouri Supreme Court, federal district court, 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court,” Parson says in a statement.
Johnson is the 130th person to be executed by the state of Missouri – 121 of the individuals were sentenced to death for murder.
He is the second inmate Missouri has put to death during the pandemic. The last one was Walter Barton in May 2020.
The state Department of Corrections says 19 prisoners are currently serving death sentences in Missouri.
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