Ernest Johnson execution: Outrage as Missouri to go ahead despite Pope Francis's plea

Ernest Johnson was convicted of killing three convenience store workers during a 1994 robbery


                            Ernest Johnson execution: Outrage as Missouri to go ahead despite Pope Francis's plea
Ernest Johnson's execution, his lawyer claims, would lead to the violation of the Eighth Amendment (Scott Hechinger/Twitter)
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BONNE TERRE, MISSOURI: Ernest Johnson, a Missouri man convicted of killing three convenience store workers during a robbery about 28 years ago, is preparing for his execution scheduled to be carried out on Tuesday, October 5. Johnson, 61, will be executed by injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre, about 50 miles south of St Louis, making it the seventh US execution this year.

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Jeremy Weis, Johnson's attorney, claimed that executing him would lead to the violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits the execution of intellectually disabled people. Weis asked the Supreme Court for a stay of execution on Monday, October 4. “This is not a close case — Mr Johnson is intellectually disabled,” the court filing stated.

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The Missouri Supreme Court, however, has continued refusing to step in even though Johnson has a history of scoring very low in IQ tests, from back when he was a child. Weis noted that Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. During a benign tumor operation in 2008, he apparently lost about one-fifth of his brain tissue.

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Despite several people's appeals, including that of the Pope himself, Governor Michael Parson on Monday, October 4, refused to grant clemency. In a letter to Parson, a representative for Pope Francis wrote last week that the Pope “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.” Parson later clarified that he would not intervene.

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This is not the first time that a Pope has intervened in a Missouri execution. Back in 1999, Pope John Paul II had persuaded Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan to grant clemency to Darrell Mease, who was later put to death for a triple killing. Several other people have also spoken in favor of Johnson, who is Black, including racial justice activists and two Missouri congressional members — Democratic US Reps Cori Bush of St Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City.

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What was Johnson's crime?

On February 12, 1994, Johnson borrowed a .25-caliber pistol from his girlfriend's 18-year-old son, planning to rob Casey's General Store for money to buy drugs. He was a frequent customer at the store.

Johnson claimed that he waited for the last customer to leave the store at the closing time, and said that he was under the influence of cocaine. At that time, there were three workers in the store — Manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58. Johnson said that it angered him when Bratcher, claiming not to have a safe key, tried to flush it down the toilet.

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Johnson shot the victims, and then went on to attack them with a claw hammer. He also stabbed Bratcher in the hand with a screwdriver. Two victims were discovered in the store's bathroom, and the third in a cooler. “This was a hideous crime," said Kevin Crane, the Boone County prosecutor at the time. "It was traumatic, and it was intense.”

Johnson was sentenced to death in his first trial, and also two other times. The second death sentence came in 2003, after the US Supreme Court ruled that executing someone who is mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel. The second death sentence was tossed by the US Supreme Court. In 2006, Johnson was sentenced for the third time.

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