Missouri governor denies clemency to death row inmate

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This undated photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Ernest Johnson. Missouri death row inmate Ernest Johnson will be executed Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, unless the courts or Gov. Mike Parson steps in. Johnson killed three people during a 1994 robbery at a convenience store in Columbia. His execution would be just the seventh in the U.S. this year. (the Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Monday declined to grant clemency to death row inmate Ernest Johnson, despite requests for mercy from the pope, two federal lawmakers and thousands of petition signers.

Johnson, 61, was convicted of killing three convenience store workers during a closing-time robbery in 1994. He is scheduled to die by injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of St. Louis.

“The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court’s order,” Parson, a Republican, said in a statement about his decision not to reduce the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Jeremy Weis, Johnson’s lawyer, said he was “very disappointed” by the decision.

“We believe we made a compelling case to him that it was the right moral decision and I guess he disagreed,” Weis said.

In a letter last week to Parson, a representative for Pope Francis wrote that the pope “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”

It wasn’t the first time a pope has sought to intervene in a Missouri execution. In 1999, during his visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II persuaded Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan to grant clemency to Darrell Mease just weeks before Mease was scheduled to be put to death for a triple killing.

In 2018, Pope Francis Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on human dignity. Catholic leaders have been outspoken opponents of the death penalty in many states.

Weiss said executing Johnson would violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits executing intellectually disabled people. He said multiple IQ tests and other exams have shown that Johnson has the intellectual capacity of a child. He also was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and in 2008, he lost about 20% of his brain tissue to the removal of a benign tumor.

Racial justice activists and two Missouri members of congress — Democratic U.S. Reps. Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City — had also called on Parson to show mercy to Johnson, who is Black.

Bush said in a phone interview that Black and Latino men are disproportionally likely to face the death penalty. She said executing someone who is intellectually disabled makes it even worse.

“Hopefully the governor will look at the fact that this would be a crime against humanity,” Bush said.

The Missouri Supreme Court in August refused to halt the execution, and on Friday, it declined to take the case up again. Weis and other attorneys for Johnson on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution.

“This is not a close case – Mr. Johnson is intellectually disabled,” they wrote in their court filing.

Johnson admitted to killing three workers at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia on Feb. 12, 1994 — manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58. The victims were shot and attacked with a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed in the hand with a screwdriver.

At Johnson’s girlfriend’s house, officers found a bag containing $443, coin wrappers, partially burned checks and tennis shoes matching bloody shoeprints found inside the store.

Johnson previously asked that his execution be carried out by firing squad, but Missouri doesn’t allow that method of execution. His lawyers argued that Missouri’s lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, could trigger seizures due to the lost brain tissue.

Johnson was sentenced to death in his first trial and two other times. The second death sentence, in 2003, came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel. The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that second death sentence and Johnson was sentenced for a third time in 2006.

If the execution takes place as scheduled, it would be the seventh in the U.S. this year but the first not involving either a federal inmate or a prisoner in Texas.

The peak year for modern executions was 1999, when there were 98 across the U.S. That number had gradually declined and just 17 people were executed last year — 10 involving federal prisoners, three in Texas and one each in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

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