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Posted under: News Politics

Ernest Lee Johnson, Black Man With Intellectual Disability, Executed Despite Clemency Pleas

A doctor testified in court that Johnson's IQ ranged between 70 and 75 and that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome at birth.

Update (Oct. 5, 2021): Ernest Lee Johnson, who was on death row after being convicted of robbing a gas station and killing three clerks 27 years ago, was executed in Missouri on Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition for clemency. Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said Johnson was pronounced dead after he received a lethal injection, CNN reports

Earlier in the day, Justice Brett Kavanaugh received a petition from Johnson's lawyers, who argued that the execution should be delayed because the 61-year-old had "presented overwhelming evidence" of his intellectual disability.

"This Court should stay Mr. Johnson's execution so that his petition for certiorari can be fully and fairly considered by this Court. There is no state interest in executing people with intellectual disabilities. The balance of equities weighs in Mr. Johnson's favor," the petition stated.

Before the Supreme Court made its ruling on Tuesday, the Missouri Governor's Office released a statement a day earlier and rejected Johnson’s argument.

"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," the office of Republican Gov. Mike Parson stated.

The governor added that "the state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received.”  

Earlier this year, Johnson told the court that he would prefer to have his execution carried out by firing squad. Due to his brain tumor, the incarcerated individual feared that the state's lethal injection protocol would cause seizures. Lawyers said Johnson, who suffered from epilepsy due to the tumor, would end up in a worse condition if he is executed by pentobarbital, a drug known to trigger seizures. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the plea in May.

Johnson issued a statement shortly before his Tuesday execution.

"I am sorry and have remorse for what I do," he wrote in a handwritten statement, adding that he loves his family and he is grateful for everybody who supported him. 

According to the BBC, the 61-year-old is the first incarcerated individual to be put to death in the state since May 2020. He is also the seventh person on death row to be executed in the U.S. this year.

Original (Oct. 3, 2021): Ernest Lee Johnson's conviction and pending death sentence has prompted a conversation regarding the lack of humanity in the death penalty as notable figures make pleas for his clemency, given his disability.

Johnson was convicted in 1995 for the killings of Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs and Fred Jones. According to ABC 17 News, Johnson, while under the influence of drugs, allegedly robbed a Missouri Casey's General Store during his third visit that day and killed the convenience store employees with a claw hammer, according to The Associated Press. 

A doctor later testified in court that Johnson's IQ ranged between 70 and 75 and that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome at birth.

The state scheduled his execution by phenobarbital injection to take place in Nov. 2015, but Johnson filed a petition to stop the execution after doctors discovered scar tissue on his brain in 2012 from a benign tumor removal procedure in 2008. Doctors shared that the lethal injection would lead him to have painful seizures. Johnson's attorney argued that the treatment would classify as cruel and unusual punishment, which is illegal under the Eighth Amendment. 

He's been on death row for 26 years while his case was reviewed by federal and state courts. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1998, saying that his attorney didn't provide an adequate defense. He was tried again and received another death penalty conviction in 1999.

Missouri's Supreme Court upheld his second conviction, but he was given another chance in 2006 after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 ruling prohibited state-sanctioned executions on people with mental disabilities. A jury, however, returned another death penalty conviction. 

Johnson's case has reached the attention of political figures including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., as well as Pope Francis, reports The Guardian. The Pope called on Missouri Gov. Michael Parson to grant Johnson clemency, asking him to review “the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.” Though, he did note Johnson's crime certainly "deserves grave punishment."

Cleaver and Bush also petitioned the governor to halt Johnson's execution. 

“The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice,” they wrote in the letter, per The Guardian. “They are about who has institutional power and who doesn’t. Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities.”

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