Former Gov. Bob Holden: Parson must intervene and stop the execution of Ernest Johnson

October 1, 2021 8:46 am

Ernest Johnson was executed by the State of Missouri on Oct. 5 (photo by Jeremy Weis).

In principle, l support capital punishment. During my term as governor, 20 men were executed.

I also realize, however, there are unique occasions when Missourians are wisely served by the governor exercising the office’s clemency powers.

The scheduled Oct. 5 execution of Ernest Johnson, I believe, is one such instance.

A review of pertinent documents has prompted me to concur with advocates that Johnson is most certainly intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD), and thus constitutionally barred from execution by the Atkins v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That’s why I privately submitted a letter to Gov. Parson and now join others publicly, only because he has not yet decided to intervene.

As one of just a few living people who understands the multiple pressures of the office, I am also compelled by conscience and fidelity to democracy to respectfully urge the governor to stay the execution and commute Johnson’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole — or at least, 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.

Nothing excuses what Johnson did. 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.

During my time in public office, I had to consider difficult situations of mental conditions and the death penalty.

In July 2001, I signed into law legislation passed by a divided legislature (GOP-majority Senate and Democrat-majority House) which included a measure to ban the death-sentencing of people with IDD, then termed “mental retardation.” Life without the possibility of parole became the most severe consequence for such individuals convicted of murder.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted the next year in their Atkins decision that Missouri’s enactment meant a majority of states had thus done so, helping demonstrate an “evolving standard of decency” had developed nationally to recognize the practice as cruel and unusual punishment. Atkins made people with IDD categorically ineligible for the death penalty.

We as a people should memorialize all who have been murdered in our communities, including Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mable Scruggs, whom Johnson was convicted of brutally killing in a Columbia Casey’s convenience store in 1994. As a society and government, we should do all we can to support their grieving loved ones and all who have suffered such a tragic loss of life. Perpetrators must be held to account with appropriate steps taken, including incarceration for life if needed, to protect the public from their committing further violent crimes.

That said, there are certain bright lines drawn by various branches of our government (and supported by the vast majority of Americans) that dictate and sometimes limit what actions officials can legitimately take. The Supreme Court in Atkins, drew one such solid line which would be corrosively crossed, if Missouri officials were to execute Johnson.

Johnson has a paper trail recorded by mental health professionals since his childhood indicating he is intellectually disabled. Courts and experts have widely defined IDD as having three factors present: impaired intellectual functioning as measured by IQ, impaired adaptive living skills in at least two of about a dozen different areas, and onset of the disability before age 18. Johnson’s history and the best available evidence are consistent with these factors, affirming his IDD standing.

Reports note in six full-scale IQ tests, beginning at age 8 and over the next three decades, he scored below the threshold for ID five times. He reportedly possesses communication skills less than those of a typical five-year old, repeated 2nd, 3rd and 9th grade (when he dropped out) and was in Special Education classes 3rd through 8th grades. His brain development may well have been stymied, one report notes, by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Throughout her pregnancy with Johnson, his mother consumed a pint of hard liquor daily and frequently took sedatives.

He and his siblings lived in a series of homes with various relatives enduring abject poverty and frequent beatings by family members and acquaintances. As a young teenager, Johnson returned to live with his mother in Columbia, for the first time since his infancy. To support her addictions Johnson’s mother prostituted herself then later her children including Ernest (his sister first became pregnant at age 15). The mother rewarded her children’s prostitution with alcohol and drugs.

Since his early childhood, Ernest and his siblings experienced food insecurity and other extreme unmet needs, so they commonly stole food and clothing. The precarious upbringing helped guide him to become an addict and thief. It is, however, ultimately the issue of his likely intellectual disability that has compelled me to write this public appeal.

No sensible person, including me, is proposing freedom for Johnson, whom I believe would be a good candidate for clemency and re-sentencing to life without the possibility of parole. He has lived in the honor dorm at the Potosi prison for years, due to his proven ability to comply with prison rules without any significant conduct violations. Prior to the murders, Johnson was convicted of burglary, car theft, stealing and robbery but no violent offenses.

Nothing excuses what Johnson did. 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. We are grateful that the Missouri Supreme Court chose earlier this week to review the extensive evidence of his IDD condition. If the court declines to intervene, we ask Gov. Parson to exercise clemency.

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Bob Holden
Bob Holden

Bob Holden served as the 53rd Governor of Missouri from 2001 to 2005. Before that, he was the State Treasurer of Missouri from 1993 to 2001 and represented the 136th district in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1983 to 1989.