Missouri Dioceses Say Death Penalty 'Degrading' After Pope's Call for Clemency Unheeded

Catholic leaders in Missouri are asking state officials to end the death penalty after the Pope's call for clemency was ignored.

Ernest Johnson was executed in Missouri Tuesday after admitting to killing convenience store workers in 1994. A representative for Pope Francis wrote a letter to Governor Mike Parson, a Baptist, to grant Johnson clemency, saying the Pope "wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of all human life."

After Parson declined to intervene, a group of Catholic leaders signed a statement Wednesday expressing their disappointment, saying the death penalty "does not make Missouri a safer or more civil state" but "degrades us as a society and teaches our children that violence is the proper response to violence."

"Ernest Lee Johnson's crimes were heinous and deserve to be punished, yet as Missouri has shown itself to be a pro-life state, we should stop using the death penalty as a means of dealing with violent crimes," the statement from St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James Johnston Jr., Jefferson City Bishop Shawn McKnight and Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop Edward Rice read.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Pope Francis Death Penalty
Catholic leaders in Missouri are asking state officials to end the death penalty after the Pope's call for clemency was ignored. Above, Pope Francis attends a Prayer and Meeting for Peace on October 7, 2021, in Rome. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

Johnson's execution is the first Missouri execution in 16 months and the seventh in the U.S. this year.

Johnson's lawyers said in the clemency petition and in court filings that repeated IQ testing showed Johnson was intellectually disabled, and executing him would violate the U.S. Constitution. He also suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and lost a significant amount of brain tissue when a benign tumor was removed in 2008.

A spokeswoman for Parson declined to comment Thursday.

Catholic leaders made a similar request to end Missouri executions to then-Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in 2013 after convicted killer Andre Cole was put to death. Nixon, a Methodist, did not stop executions—21 were carried out during his eight years in office. Three men have been executed since Parson became governor in June 2018.

During his visit to St. Louis in 1999, Pope John Paul II persuaded Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan to grant clemency to Darrell Mease, who was awaiting execution for killing three people.

In 2018, Pope Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an "attack" on human dignity.

Ernest Johnson
A representative for Pope Francis wrote a letter to Governor Mike Parson asking for clemency before Missouri executed inmate Ernest Johnson on October 5, 2021. Johnson is seen above in this undated photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections. Missouri Department of Corrections via AP File