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Politicians Call For Clemency Of Ernest Lee Johnson, Black Man With Disability On Death Row

Ernest Lee Johnson’s conviction and pending death sentence has prompted a conversation regarding the lack of humanity in the death penalty as notable figures make pleas for his clemency given his disabilty.

Johnson was convicted in 1995 for the murders of three people: Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones. According to ABC 17 News, Johnson, while under the influence of drugs, allegedly robbed a Missouri Casey’s General Store during his third visit that day and killed the convenience store employees with a claw hammer. 

A doctor later testified in court that Johnson’s IQ ranged between 70 and 75 and that he suffered from fetal alcohol system at birth.

The state scheduled his execution by phenobarbitol injection to take place in Nov. 2015, but Johnson filed a petition to stop the execution after doctors discovered scar tissue on his brain in 2012 from a benign tumor removal procedure in 2008. Doctors shared that the lethal injection would lead him to have painful seizures. Johnson’s attorney argued that the treatment would classify as cruel and unusual punishment, which is illegal under the 8th Amendment. 

He’s been on death row for 26 years while his case was reviewed by federal and state courts. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1998, saying that his attorney didn’t provide an adequate defense. He was tried again and received another death penalty conviction in 1999.

Missouri’s Supreme Court upheld his second conviction but he was given another chance in 2006 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling prohibited state-sanctioned executions on people with mental disabilities. A jury, however, returned another death penalty conviction. 

Johnson’s case has reached the attention of political figures including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) as well as Pope Francis, reports The Guardian. The Pope called on Missouri Governor Michael Parson to grant Johnson clemency, asking him to review “the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.” Though, he did note Johnson’s crime certainly “deserves grave punishment.”

Cleaver and Bush also petitioned the governor to halt Johnson’s execution. 

“The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice,” they wrote in the letter, per The Guardian. “They are about who has institutional power and who doesn’t. Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities.”

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