Missouri executes inmate after Holy See appealed for clemency

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Missouri on Tuesday evening executed Ernest Johnson, 61, an inmate convicted of murdering three people in the 1990s, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied Johnson’s emergency appeal for a stay of execution. The Holy See had also advocated for a halt to the execution.

In an unsigned order on Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court denied Johnson’s appeal for a stay of execution, and the state shortly afterward executed Johnson by lethal injection.

The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, on Monday had asked for “some appropriate form of clemency” for Johnson in the Holy Father’s name.

While noting that “grave crimes such as this deserve grave punishments,” Pierre said in a plea to Missouri Gov. Michael Parson (R) that “His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”

Johnson was convicted of killing three convenience store employees in 1994 while trying to rob the store for drug money. The victims were 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs, and 58-year-old Fred Jones.

His lawyers have argued that he is intellectually disabled, and thus should be spared the death penalty. Johnson was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and eight of nine full-scale IQ scores of his were “within range of intellectual disability,” his lawyers argued in an appeal for executive clemency.

The state supreme court on Aug. 31 denied Johnson’s petition for habeas corpus, stating that he “is not intellectually disabled.” Gov. Parsons this week declined to grant clemency in the case.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition, Johnson “does not possess such substantial deficits in intellectual functioning to prove intellectual disability,” the state supreme court stated in its Aug. 31 ruling. “Most glaring is Johnson’s ability to plan,” the court added, noting that in an interview he gave 10 years after the killings, he “was able to recall specific, strategic decisions he made and the reasons for them.”

Johnson has been on death row three times, according to the AP. 

In 2001 he was scheduled to be executed before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the intellectually disabled was unconstitutional. Following a new sentencing hearing, he was again sentenced to death in 2003 before the state supreme court dismissed that sentence. In 2006, the state again sentenced him to death. The state supreme court in 2015 denied his petition for habeas corpus; when he appealed again, citing more recent court decisions, the supreme court again denied his petition in August 2021.

A prayer vigil was held in St. Louis on Tuesday for a halt to Johnson’s execution, the St. Louis Review reported.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Missouri governor's name. It has been updated with the correct information.

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