The death penalty has been called a tool for racialized violence. It was used on Tuesday to end an intellectually disabled Black man's life.
Missouri man Ernest Johnson, aged 61, was executed on Tuesday despite several pleas for clemency. Although his pleas received support from two members of the United States Congress and Pope Francis, he received a lethal injection after the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution earlier in the day. Attorneys for Johnson argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty as multiple IQ tests displayed that he had the mental capacity of a child. The 61-year-old, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome as his mother drank heavily during her pregnancy, could only read at a primary school level. He was convicted of killing three convenience store workers during a robbery in 1994, BBC News reports.
Johnson, a Black man, had also undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2008, leading him to lose a fifth of his brain tissue. Pointing to a 2002 Supreme Court verdict, his attorneys argued that utilizing the death penalty against Americans with intellectual disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments." However, the court denied a plea for leniency. In addition to this, Missouri's Republican governor refused to block the sentence from being carried out.
Pope Francis sent a letter requesting clemency for #ErnestJohnson to @GovParsonMO this week through the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. The Pope "wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of all human life." pic.twitter.com/rpWfTPZOFE— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) October 1, 2021
Meanwhile, racial justice activists rallied to spare Johnson's life. Most notably, House Representative Cori Bush called on individuals to phone Governor Parson and demand a stop to the execution. She highlighted the racial disparities in death penalty sentencing. She posted on Twitter prior to the victim's death, "In Missouri, the killers of white victims are seven times more likely to receive the death penalty than the killers of Black victims. The death penalty is a tool that perpetuates racialized violence. It needs to be abolished. Ernest Johnson must not be executed." However, she was unsuccessful in her pursuit.
The death penalty is cruel and racist.— Mayor Tishaura O. Jones (@saintlouismayor) October 5, 2021
Today I stood with @RepCori, @MADPMO, faith leaders, and community members to call for clemency and to reverse the decision by the State to end #ErnestJohnson's life. We must abolish the death penalty in Missouri. pic.twitter.com/Y72Fz5QfVB
Following Johnson's death, his last statement was released to the public. "I am [sorry] and have remorse for what I [did]," it reads in shaky handwriting and broken English. "I want to say that I love my family and friends. I am thankful [for] all that my lawyer has done for me. They made me feel love as if I was family to them. I love them all. For all the people [who have] prayed for me, I thank them from the bottom of my [heart]. I love the Lord with all my heart and soul. If I am executed, I [know where] I am going—to heaven. Because I asked [God] to forgive me. God [bless] everyone. [With] respect, Ernest L Johnson."
DOC has made available a last statement from Ernest Johnson, dated yesterday. pic.twitter.com/yQdbMFDUNm— Jeanne Kuang (@JeanneKuang) October 5, 2021
Representative Bush, sharing his last statement on Twitter, affirmed, "This wasn’t justice. This was cruelty. Abolish the death penalty." Johnson's execution is the seventh to take place in the US this year, and the second in the state of Missouri. The first execution in Missouri took place in May. Bob Holden, who was Missouri's governor from 2001 to 2005, wrote that while he oversaw 20 executions during his tenure, Johnson's case was an outlier. "None of this excuses what Johnson did," he writes in The Kansas City Star. "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."
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. pic.twitter.com/wJvMQcrWoH— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) October 6, 2021