Despite pleas from Pope Francis and other advocates, Missouri executes intellectually disabled man

Death chamber
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Missouri carried out its first execution since May 2020 on Tuesday night, killing Ernest Lee Johnson, 61, with a lethal injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre. Gov. Mike Parsons (R) on Monday night had declined pleas to commute Johnson's death sentence, including from Pope Francis and two members of Missouri's congressional delegation. Johnson's final statement, as passed down by the Missouri Department of Corrections, expressed remorse for killing three people during a 1994 convenience story robbery and thanked those who supported him.

Pope Francis "wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of all human life," not just his "doubtful intellectual capacity," Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican's U.S. ambassador, wrote Parsons on Oct 1. Other advocates focused more on Johnson's intellectual acuity.

Johnson's lawyers said he was intellectually disabled since birth, noting his IQ or between 67 and 77, and said his mental capacity declined further after 20 percent of his brain tissue was removed in a 2008 surgery to remove part of a tumor. They said executing him was unconstitutional, citing a 2002 Supreme Court ruling. But that ruling left it up to states to determine what constitutes an intellectual disability serious enough to avert capital punishment. The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously decline to halt Johnson's execution in May and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene on Tuesday.

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