Pope Asks Missouri to Halt Execution of Inmate Believed to Be Intellectually Disabled

Pope Francis pleaded with Missouri Governor Mike Parson to remember the "sacredness of all life" last week as an inmate faces the death sentence, the Associated Press reported.

Ernest Johnson, 61, is set to be executed Tuesday at 6 p.m. for killing three people during a convenience store robbery in 1994.

Jeremy Weis, Johnson's attorney, said that executing Johnson is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, which prevents executing intellectually disabled people.

Weis explained that Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and in a 2008 surgery to remove a benign tumor, lost about 20 percent of his brain tissue.

Johnson's testing and IQ have shown that he has the intellectual capacity of a child, according to Weis.

A representative wrote a letter last week, saying that Pope Francis "wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of all human life."

Parson has been considering reducing Johnson's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Missouri Supreme Court refused to take up the case again on Friday, allowing the execution on Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre, after also declining to halt it in August.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Inmate Ernest Johnson faces death penalty Tuesday
Pope Francis pleaded with Missouri Governor Mike Parson to remember the "sacredness of all life" last week as an inmate faces the death sentence. Above, an undated photo from the Missouri Department of Corrections of Ernest Johnson, who killed three people in 1994 and is scheduled to be executed on October 5, 2021. The Missouri Department of Corrections/Associated Press

Racial justice activists and two Missouri members of Congress—Democratic U.S. Representatives Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City—have also called on Parson to show mercy to Johnson, who is Black.

Johnson admitted to killing three workers at a Casey's General Store in Columbia on February 12, 1994—manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58. The victims were shot and attacked with a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed in the hand with a screwdriver.

At Johnson's girlfriend's house, officers found a bag containing $443, coin wrappers, partially burned checks and tennis shoes matching bloody shoeprints found inside the store.

Johnson previously asked that his execution be carried out by firing squad, but Missouri doesn't allow that method of execution. His lawyers argued that Missouri's lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, could trigger seizures due to the lost brain tissue.

Johnson was sentenced to death in his first trial and two other times. The second death sentence, in 2003, came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel. The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that second death sentence and Johnson was sentenced for a third time in 2006.

If the execution takes place as scheduled, it would be the seventh in the U.S. this year but the first not involving either a federal inmate or a prisoner in Texas.

The peak year for modern executions was 1999, when there were 98 across the U.S. That number had gradually declined and just 17 people were executed last year—10 involving federal prisoners, three in Texas and one each in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri, according to a database compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.