Missouri Democratic lawmakers have joined the chorus of voices urging Gov. Mike Parson to stop the upcoming execution of a death row inmate missing a fifth of his brain and widely believed to be intellectually disabled.
“The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice,” Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and Cori Bush (D-MO) wrote in a letter to Parson about the imminent execution of Ernest Lee Johnson, per the Kansas City Star. “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.”
Johnson is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre on Tuesday evening. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 for killing three employees of a convenience store—46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs, and 58-year-old Fred Jones—with a claw hammer. Prosecutors said he was trying to score money for drugs.
Johnson’s planned execution has sparked protests from critics who say it would be cruel and unusual punishment to put him to death because he suffers from an intellectual disability. Johnson has a benign tumor in his brain, and a 2008 operation to remove it left him missing up to 20 percent of brain tissue, his lawyer has said.
The lethal injection drug used by Missouri authorities could cause Johnson painful and violent seizures due to the presence of the tumor, according to his defense.
His attorney has already exhausted all options to spare him. The Missouri Supreme Court last month shot down the defense’s argument that Johnson is intellectually disabled, ruling that while IQ tests do show sub-average intelligence, he proved fully capable of planning the robbery and murders at the Casey’s General Store in 1994.
Johnson’s attorney, Jeremy Weis, said the court’s ruling was riddled with “legal and factual errors” and that Johnson “meets all statutory and clinical definitions” of intellectual disability. Weis argues that Johnson should be protected under the Eighth Amendment, which bars the execution of intellectually disabled people. He said IQ tests put Johnson’s intellect somewhere in the range of 67-77.
Johnson’s defense attorney is not the only one to express alarm at the prospect of an intellectually disabled man being put to death.
The upcoming execution sparked a protest Wednesday at the Missouri Capitol, with dozens of people and organizations taking part, including the ACLU of Missouri and the state chapter of the NAACP. Separately, several activists said they planned to submit a petition to the governor with 25,000 signatures from Missourians opposed to the execution.
The Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S. also passed along a letter from Pope Francis to Gov. Parson this week with an “urgent plea” to stop the execution, requesting clemency for Johnson to uphold the “sacredness of human life.”
Parson has remained tight-lipped amid mounting pleas to stop the execution.
Johnson has already been sentenced to death three times—in 2001, 2003, and 2006. The sentences were overturned the first two times.
Alli Sullivan from the nonprofit Death Penalty Action penned a letter to Gov. Parson calling on him to stop the execution, noting that she can attest to Johnson’s intellectual disability.
“Ernest Johnson is a man who should have never been eligible for execution,” she wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Daily Beast.
“In 2015, he had ⅕ of his brain removed in [an] attempt to take out a brain tumor he had. As a result, receiving a lethal dose of Pentobarbitol, a barbituate, risks Ernest experiencing severe and painful seizures,” Sullivan wrote.