Catholic activists speak out against execution of Missouri man

Death-row inmate Ernest Lee Johnson is shown in this Oct. 26, 2016, photo released by the Missouri Department of Corrections. He was executed by lethal injection Oct. 5, 2021, at a state prison in Bonne Terre, Mo. (CNS photo/Missouri Department of Corrections, Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Following the Oct. 5 execution of Ernest Johnson at a state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, Catholic opponents of the death penalty emphasized that this didn’t have to happen.

“Ernest Johnson should not have been executed. He was intellectually disabled and categorically ineligible for the death penalty. Ernest was a human being. He committed a terrible crime and was deeply remorseful. This was not justice,” tweeted Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who is a longtime death penalty opponent.

“Our work to end the death penalty, a system that targets some of our most vulnerable members of society, continues,” tweeted Catholics Mobilizing Against the Death Penalty, after Johnson was executed at 6:11 p.m. local time by lethal injection.

Just prior to his execution, the group asked for prayers for Johnson and his victims on social media. Days before, they had urged people to contact the Missouri governor opposing the execution.

Before the execution took place, the group pointed out that Missouri’s governor and the U.S. Supreme Court did not “intend to stop this state-sanctioned killing from moving forward.”

In an Oct. 4 statement, Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson said Johnson would be executed the following day. “The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court’s order,” he said.

The Supreme Court, on the evening of Oct. 5, further cleared the way for Johnson’s execution, by denying a request to stop it.

At the time of his execution, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty were joined by faith leaders at a vigil near the prison. They also had demonstrated earlier that day in St. Louis.

Johnson, 61, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 and sentenced to death for killing three employees of a Columbia, Missouri, convenience store.

Pope Francis joined calls for clemency for Johnson, expressed in a Sept. 27 letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, nuncio to the United States, to the Missouri governor.

The nuncio’s letter, sent on behalf of Pope Francis, urged Parson to respect Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life, stressing that it was not based on facts and circumstances of Johnson’s crimes or of his “doubtful intellectual capacity.”

Johnson’s lawyer and advocates for his clemency had argued that his execution would be unconstitutional because a 2008 operation on a brain tumor left him with a diminished intellectual capacity. Surgeons had to remove roughly one-fifth of his brain tissue.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing intellectually disabled people is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Commenting on this on social media, Sister Prejean called Johnson’s execution “unconstitutional under all existing legal precedents. He has the mental capacity of a 9-year-old child and is missing 20% of his brain mass. The Supreme Court’s failure to do anything to stop this is a moral failing of the highest order.”

She also noted that there is “no fixing a system that could allow this to happen. The only answer is complete abolition of the death penalty.”

Currently, 27 states still use capital punishment. Missouri is one of four states to resume executions a year after they had been paused during the pandemic.

In Johnson’s last statement, released by the Missouri Correctional Department, he said he was sorry and had remorse for what he did. He said he loved his family and friends and was thankful for his lawyer and for the people who prayed for him.

“I love the Lord with all my heart and soul,” he said, adding that he had asked God to forgive him.

Over the years, there had been several court challenges about Johnson’s intellectual abilities. This past August, the state Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s ability to give details of his crime showed he was able “to plan, strategize and problem solve — contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”

Bob Holden, the former Democratic governor of Missouri, wrote in an Oct. 3 opinion piece in The Kansas City Star that he had supported the death penalty when he was in office from 2001 to 2005 but said there are unique situations that call for clemency that would still involve life in prison with no parole.

“The scheduled Oct. 5 execution of Ernest Johnson, I believe, is one such instance,” he wrote, citing the paper trail of evaluations indicating that Johnson was mentally disabled.

“None of this excuses what Johnson did,” he 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.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim