Pope Urges Missouri to Halt Execution

Gov. Mike Parson says he won't spare Ernest Lee Johnson
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 4, 2021 5:50 PM CDT
Pope, Lawmakers Urge State to Spare Condemned Man
This photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Ernest Johnson.   (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

Lawyers say Ernest Lee Johnson has the intellectual capacity of a child, and Pope Francis is among those urging Missouri to spare the death row inmate—but the state is proceeding with plans to execute him at 6pm Tuesday. Johnson, 61, was sentenced to death for killing three people during a convenience store robbery in 1994. Advocates urging Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to commute his sentence to life in prison say the Black inmate was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and his intellectual capacity was further reduced by the removal of around a fifth of his brain in a tumor operation in 2008, the Guardian reports. Missouri's Supreme Court has refused to halt the execution. On Friday, it declined to take the case up again.

Two death sentences were overturned before Johnson was convicted a third time in 2006. The US Supreme Court stayed Johnson's execution in 2015. Earlier this year, the court refused to hear an appeal from Johnson asking to be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection. Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of St. Louis and Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have urged the Republican governor to spare Johnson, but Parson said Monday that he will not intervene, the AP reports. "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," Parson said.

A representative of Pope Francis, writing in the pontiff's name, also urged Parson to show mercy. The plea is not based on the facts of Johnson's undeniably "grave crimes" or entirely on his "doubtful intellectual capacity" but on "the simple fact of Mr Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life," Archbishop Christophe Pierre wrote in a letter last week, per Vatican News. "When all violence of all types is restrained, even the violence of legal execution, all of society benefits," he wrote. (More execution stories.)

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