Early Tuesday evening the state of Missouri executed Ernest Johnson, an intellectually disabled man, for a crime committed in 1994. As reported by the Associated Press, Johnson’s lawyers insisted that his intellectual functioning was equivalent to that of a young child.
Anti-death penalty advocate and spiritual adviser Sister Helen Prejean spoke out about the execution on Twitter Tuesday evening.
“Ernest Johnson should not have been executed,” tweeted Prejean. “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.”
Even the pope weighed in on clemency for Johnson, requesting Missouri Governor Mike Parson recognize “the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”
The Supreme Court refused to stay the order of execution. Prejean pointed to existing precedent that ought to have voided the death penalty in Johnson’s case.
Johnson was convicted of killing three people during a robbery in 1994. While some may think the death penalty is a valid form of punishment, the group Missourians For Alternatives To The Death Penalty organized a clemency campaign citing the legal standard involved in death penalty cases of people who are intellectually disabled.
“In the American courts system, one of the fundamental principles is that all people are treated fairly and justly under the law, whether they are the victim or the accused,” read a statement on the organization’s website. “This is further solidified in the 8th amendment of the US Constitution, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment.”
In 2008, a portion of his brain mass was removed due to a benign tumor. It’s also reported Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
As a part of its advocacy on behalf of Johnson, Missourians for Alternatives To The Death Penalty also noted that despite the Supreme Court precedent, there are many people who would qualify for reprieve based on intellectual disability but are still executed.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones echoed calls to abolish the death penalty in Missouri, calling the practice “cruel and racist.”
Rep. Cori Bush also called for abolishing the death penalty, calling the execution cruel and unjust.
A 2015 study found that most people executed in Missouri were convicted of killing white people, even though white people did not make up the majority of people murdered. There’s little to no indication that the state’s racial disparity in sentencing has changed in the past few years.