Yesterday at 6:11 p.m., the State of Missouri executed Ernest Lee Johnson, a man with intellectual disability whose 2008 surgery to remove a brain tumor also took 20% of his brain.
In his last statement before he was executed, Mr. Johnson expressed his remorse for the 1994 murders of three convenience store employees, Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones, and Mabel Scruggs. He continued, “I want to say that I love my family and friends,” adding that he was also grateful for his lawyer. “For all the people that has prayed for me I thank them.”
According to The New York Times, after several court challenges to his death sentence over the years because of testing and deficits that demonstrated his intellectual disability, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in August that the fact that Mr. Johnson could remember details of the crime showed he was able “to plan, strategize, and problem solve–contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”
Former Missouri Governor Bob Holden sent a letter to Governor Mike Parsons, asking him to commute Mr. Johnson’s death sentence.
In that letter, Holden stated that Mr. Johnson had a history of medical documentation of his intellectual disability and was likely was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Mr. Johnson’s communication skills were like that of a 5-year-old child.
“None of this excuses what Johnson did,” Mr. Holden wrote. “But if our state is to be guided by the rule of law, we must temper our understandable anger with reason and compassion for the most vulnerable among us, including Ernest Johnson.”
On December 13, in a Shelby County courtroom, a hearing will begin for Pervis Payne, another man facing execution who is also living with intellectual disability.
In passing and signing legislation to update the definition of intellectual disability in the Tennessee criminal code and to provide a legal path for some already on death row to have their ID claims fully heard by the courts, the Tennessee General Assembly and Governor Lee did the right thing.
The Shelby County DA’s office could still do the right thing too, by acknowledging Mr. Payne’s intellectual disability and allowing him to be removed from death row.
We must not allow what happened to Ernest Johnson happen to Pervis Payne.