Missouri executes Ernest Johnson, killer of 3 but mentally disabled, supporters say
BONNE TERRE, Mo. — Missouri executed Ernest Lee Johnson on Tuesday for killing three people in 1994, ending a legal battle over claims that his intellectual disability made him ineligible to be put to death under the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Johnson, 61, killed three convenience store employees in Columbia in a closing-time robbery. His lawyers argued that in five decades of testing he displayed IQ scores in the 60s and 70s, well below the adult average.
His final appeals before the state Supreme Court were denied last week. About an hour and a half before the scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a stay of execution.
Johnson was put to death at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. He died at at 6:11 p.m., according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
In a written statement dated Monday, made available by prison officials, Johnson expressed remorse and thanked those who had prayed for him. The statement contained misspellings and an unfinished sentence.
“I am sorry and have remorse for what i do,” he wrote, his statement riddled with grammar errors. “I want to say that I love my family and friends. I am thankful of all that my (lawyer) has done for me. They made me feel love as if I was family to them.”
It continued: “I love the Lord with all my heart and soul. If I am executed I no were I am going to heaven. Because I ask him to forgive me.”
The execution bucked a national trend. Only five states and the federal government carried out death sentences last year, a 30-year low in executions performed. Missouri has been one of only two states to execute a prisoner since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic paused many legal proceedings.
Support for the death penalty nationally has been on the decline for half a century, polls have shown, but six in 10 adults favor it.
Johnson’s case drew international attention in recent days, in part because Pope Francis, through a U.S. ambassador, wrote to Gov. Mike Parson asking him to stop the execution. The pope, who two years ago called all executions immoral, asked Parson to consider “the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”
Missouri Democratic Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver, as well as former Gov. Bob Holden, also urged Parson to show mercy because of Johnson’s disability claim.
In public statements in the past, family members of Johnson’s victims, Mary Bratcher, 46, Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58, have said they wanted to see the execution done.
The execution had been halted in the past because of claims that the drug used in the lethal injection would cause seizures for Johnson, who underwent brain surgery in 2008 to remove part of a tumor.
Ahead of the execution, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said Tuesday evening that it should not go through.
“Our state should no longer tinker in the machinery of death,” Lucas tweeted, partly citing a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.
Bratcher was a single mother with a deep laugh who wore holes into her shoes to provide for her three children. She walked into the Casey’s that night to help a new employee, her children told The Columbia Missourian in 2015.
Jones was a quiet man who took care of an elderly mother and disabled brother, according to the newspaper.
And Scruggs was a single mother with two jobs. She also worked at the University of Missouri Student Health Center.
On a February night in 1994, Johnson, a regular at Casey’s where all three worked, bludgeoned them to death as he robbed the store looking for money to buy cocaine. He used a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed with a screwdriver and Jones was shot in the face.
After the first death sentence was overturned, Jones’ mother in 1999 told the Associated Press she supported the death penalty in Johnson’s case because she could no longer speak to her son. Johnson’s family, she said, “can still talk to him.”
Bratcher’s daughter Carley Schaffer in 2015 told The Missourian the execution would mean the end of two decades of court hearings in the case.
“I’m ready for this to be done,” she said then.
Johnson’s attorneys said he had an IQ that in various tests has ranged from 67 to 77. They noted the Eighth Amendment — forbidding cruel and unusual punishment — prohibits executing intellectually disabled people.
“This is not a close case — Mr. Johnson is intellectually disabled,” his lawyers wrote in their court filing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Missouri Supreme Court rejected that claim in August, unanimously finding that Johnson “failed to prove he is intellectually disabled” because he planned the crime in advance and made other “strategic decisions.”
His supporters continued to press Parson for clemency, holding a series of demonstrations across the state Tuesday before about two dozen gathered outside the prison ahead of the execution.
The Missouri Catholic Conference applied for Johnson’s sentence to be commuted, as it does in every execution. But lobbyist Rita Linhardt said Johnson’s mental capacity made the case especially urgent.
“It just speaks more about who we are than who he is,” Linhardt said of the execution.
Joe Amrine, who spent 17 years on death row for a prison murder he did not commit, did time with Johnson and described him as quiet and “clearly not that bright.”
Even prison administration knew Johnson was intellectually disbaled, Amrine told The Star. Personally, Amrine — who was exonerated and freed in 2003 — felt Johnson’s execution is wrong. But citing Johnson’s IQ scores, he said legally, the state “is dead wrong.”
“But that’s Missouri,” Amrine said.