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No use even asking Gov. Parson not to execute Ernest Johnson because he’s disabled

·4 min read

Missouri cannot legally execute 61-year-old Ernest Lee Johnson on October 5. Because the Supreme Court has consistently found that to kill someone so cognitively impaired would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last month that Johnson, who had part of his brain removed along with a tumor in 2008, can’t be that disabled because he planned the 1994 closing-time murder of three Columbia convenience store workers — Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones.

But former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff has spoken out against this decision: “Mr. Johnson is a person with intellectual deficits so significant that a reasonable jury would not have recommended execution. Under constitutional standards, his execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution as interpreted for decades in U.S. Supreme Court decisions.”

Because we’ve met Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who has spent much of his time in office pretending that COVID-19 is the same as a cold and that Kevin Strickland is guilty of murder, we don’t even dare to hope that the evidence that Johnson today has the awareness of a child might convince our governor to commute his sentence.

But when the state, our state, does kill this man, as it almost certainly will, it will be yet another indictment of a system so bloodthirsty that it delights in vengeance against those who don’t even know why they’re being punished.

As capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean says, there are no millionaires on death row. And even among the guilty, there are few people who haven’t themselves been so abused or injured they’re incapacitated.

In reviving the federal death penalty last year, after a 17-year hiatus, then-Attorney General William Barr said we’d be executing “the worst criminals.” Instead, those put to death personified almost every argument against capital punishment.

The 10 federal prisoners executed in 2020 — the most in any single calendar year for more than a century — included a man with such late-stage Alzheimer’s that he didn’t know why he was being killed and two men who were teenagers at the time of their crimes. In our name, the government executed a Native American whose crime was committed on tribal lands, despite the fact that the Navajo Nation, which should have had sovereignty, opposes capital punishment. We killed a Black man convicted by an all-white jury. And a man with such a low IQ that he, too, should have been disqualified as too low-functioning to be put to death.

Republican St. Louis McCloskeys got governor’s pardon

Parson has the power to stay Johnson’s execution and appoint a five-member board of inquiry that would have the authority to subpoena evidence and compel witnesses to testify. The board would then recommend to Parson whether Johnson should be executed or have his death sentence commuted to life without parole.

Again, he won’t do that, because his reserves of compassion were spent in pardoning St. Louis lawyer Mark McCloskey, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, and his wife Patricia, who pleaded guilty to assault after waving guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators last year.

And no, this won’t be the first time Missouri officials have ignored the U.S. Constitution in favor of polling that says you can never go wrong by punishing the pathetic.

In 2015, 74-year-old Cecil Clayton was put to death despite severe mental illness, dementia and intellectual disabilities related to his advanced age. He also had severe brain damage from injuries suffered during a sawmill accident.

On July 16, 2014, John Middleton was put to death despite a variety of mental health disorders. One day before, a federal judge in Missouri stayed Middleton’s execution. The judge, Catherine Perry, was concerned that Middleton might be mentally incompetent, and not eligible for the death penalty. But Missouri officials executed him anyway.

In the most recent court filing this week, Johnson’s legal defense team once again argued that Johnson meets all statutory and clinical definitions of intellectual disability. But Johnson is not mentally challenged and must die, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office argued.

The crime Johnson was convicted of was heinous. All three victims were beaten with a claw hammer. One was shot, and another stabbed with a screwdriver. All were found in a cooler inside the store.

When we kill this man, we will be doing what he did. But because of his brain tumor, the already impaired man who committed those murders no longer even exists. And we won’t let that stop us either, will we?

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