Pope Urges Clemency for Missouri Death Row Prisoner


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing intellectually disabled people is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The last time Missouri carried out an execution was in May 2020, when Walter Barton was put to death by lethal injection for fatally stabbing an 81-year-old woman in 1991.

Using a hammer as a weapon, Mr. Johnson killed three convenience store employees — Mary Bratcher, 46; Fred Jones, 58; and Mabel Scruggs, 57 — in Columbia, Mo., in February 1994 as he was robbing the store for money to buy drugs, court documents say. A jury in Boone County, Mo., convicted him in 2005 on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death, the documents say.

After several court challenges over the years centering on Mr. Johnson’s intellectual tests and abilities, the state Supreme Court ruled in August that his recollections of details of the crime showed he was able “to plan, strategize, and problem solve — contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”

Mr. Johnson was born in Steele, Mo., in 1960 and grew up in Charleston, Mo., Ms. Bush and Mr. Cleaver wrote in their letter. His father was a sharecropper, they said, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother.

Because of his mother’s addictions to alcohol and drugs, Mr. Johnson was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Ms. Bush and Mr. Cleaver wrote. The Associated Press reported that up to 20 percent of Mr. Johnson’s brain tissue was removed during an operation in 2008 to remove a brain tumor.

“Mr. Johnson’s execution would be a grave act of injustice,” Ms. Bush and Mr. Cleaver wrote.

In an opinion piece in The Kansas City Star on Sunday, Bob Holden, a Democratic former governor of Missouri, said he had sent a letter to Mr. Parson seeking clemency for Mr. Johnson. Mr. Holden said that he supported capital punishment, noting that 20 men were executed during his tenure as governor, from 2001 to 2005.

“I also realize, however, there are unique occasions when the people of our state are wisely served by the governor exercising the office’s clemency powers,” Mr. Holden wrote. “The scheduled Oct. 5 execution of Ernest Johnson, I believe, is one such instance.”



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