Missouri Representatives Cori Bush and Emmanuel Cleaver, along with Pope Francis and an array of racial justice advocates, are begging Missouri Governor Mike Parson to halt the execution of Ernest Lee Johnson, a 61-year-old Black man with an intellectual disability who is scheduled to die by lethal injection this evening.
The slated execution of Johnson, in context of the broader issue of state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities, “is actually a crime against humanity,” Bush said in a phone interview with The Nation. Bush and Cleaver, both Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have been urging Parson to use his executive powers to grant Johnson clemency. The lawmakers argued in a recent letter to the Republican governor that Johnson’s execution would perpetuate the same cycles of trauma that “slavery and lynching did before it.”
Parson declined to grant clemency on Monday, but advocates are still fighting. “I do feel that there is hope, even up until the last moment,” Bush said. “If nothing happens today, we’ll continue to push this continue to try to highlight this terrible, terrible injustice. We cannot just allow Ernest Johnson to die.”
A 2002 ruling by the Supreme Court determined that executing people with intellectual disabilities constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Johnson’s public defender, Jeremy Weis, has said that Johnson “meets all statutory and clinical definitions” of intellectual disability. According to Weis, Johnson has scored between 67 and 77 in IQ tests and has the intellectual capacity of a child. But the ruling left it up to states to determine their own way of defining the condition and deciding who meets the criteria. In August, the Missouri Supreme Court denied a petition from Johnson’s lawyers, ruling that he was eligible for the death penalty.
Johnson was also born with fetal alcohol syndrome to a mother who struggled with addiction, and he suffers from seizures after he underwent a surgery in 2008 requiring the removal of roughly 20 percent of his brain tissue. The drug used in Missouri’s executions, Pentobarbital, will likely cause Johnson painful seizures, his lawyers say.
The American Bar Association wrote to Parson in August, expressing concern that “a flawed process has failed to properly determine that Mr. Johnson is a person with intellectual disability and thus ineligible for the death penalty, despite significant evidence supporting this diagnosis.”
“I don’t understand why our governor is being quiet about this and just allowing it to happen,” Bush continued. “He made a decision to be a public servant, for all of Missouri, not just those who are his donors.”
Johnson grew up in poverty, in an environment his siblings described as abusive. His father was a sharecropper in Pemiscot County, which has seen documented lynchings. Because his mother struggled with substance abuse throughout most of her life, according to Johnson’s lawyers, he was raised primarily by his grandmother. Johnson was convicted of murder in 1995, one year after he killed three people as he was robbing a convenience store for money to buy drugs.
“This is a failure of society and again. These are policy choices,” Bush said. “These are terrible decisions. These are purposeful racist, white supremacist decisions from a society where this has been allowed, not only on the federal level, but it’s been allowed on the state level here in Missouri.”