With only days before he is scheduled to be executed, supporters of a man convicted of a triple killing in Columbia brought petitions to Jefferson City with signatures of people from around the state and country who believe his sentence should be commuted to life in prison without parole.
During a rally Wednesday morning, petitions in support of Ernest Johnson were dropped off at Gov. Mike Parson's Capitol office. There were close to 23,000 signatures of people who believe Johnson's intellectual disability makes him ineligible for the death penalty, said Elyse Max, state director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP).
Johnson, 61, is scheduled to die by injection Oct. 5 at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It would be the first execution in Missouri since convicted killer Walter Barton was put to death in May 2020.
Johnson was convicted of killing 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs and 58-year-old Fred Jones in February 1994 during a closing-time robbery of a Casey's General Store in Columbia. Johnson wanted money to buy drugs, authorities said.
All three workers were beaten to death with a claw hammer. Bratcher also was stabbed at least 10 times with a screwdriver and Jones was shot in the face. The bodies were hidden in a cooler.
Johnson was arrested after police found a bank bag, stolen money and store receipts at his home.
Max and other supporters said a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision made individuals such as Johnson, categorically, ineligible for the death penalty. Max said they are asking Parson to convene a Board of Inquiry of mental-health professionals who are, "neither advocates for nor against the death penalty to determine his level of disability — before he would killed."
"Justice is something we're looking for in Missouri, but it doesn't seem like we can find it," said Nimrod Chapel Jr., chairman of the MADP board. "We're asking for clemency for a man who, if we were in grade school, I'm sure our parents would have told us to look out for. We don't pick on the weakest or just because they're poor and certainly not if they have an intellectual disability."
Johnson's lawyers said he meets all statutory and clinical definitions of intellectual disability and has an IQ that in various tests has ranged from 67 to 77. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits executing intellectually disabled people.
Johnson had previously asked that his execution be carried out by firing squad. His lawyers argued Missouri's lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, could trigger seizures. In 2008, Johnson had most, but not all, of a benign brain tumor removed, and a later MRI revealed that up to 20 percent of his brain tissue was also removed.
However, Missouri law does not authorize execution by firing squad, and the U.S. Supreme Court in May refused to consider Johnson's appeal. The Missouri Supreme Court in August declined to halt the execution based on concerns about the drug.
Johnson has been sentenced to death three times.
He was already on death row in 2001 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel, and a new sentencing hearing was ordered. Johnson was again sentenced to death in 2003. The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that sentence, too. In 2006, Johnson was sentenced to death again.
"When a crime is committed, we all want justice," Missouri Catholic Conference Senior Staff Associate Rita Linhardt said. "Mr. Johnson is entitled to justice — justice that is tempered with mercy. The common good of our state will be carried out if this execution is stopped and the cycle of violence is broken."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.