Missouri Executes Man After Supreme Court Declines To Intervene Over Question Of Intellectual Disabilities


Missouri officials executed a man convicted of murder Tuesday, after the Supreme Court rejected his lawyers’ last-minute request to call off the execution due to his intellectual disabilities, ending a controversial case that’s drawn attention from politicians and the pope.

Key Facts

Ernest Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m. local time Tuesday evening, after he was put to death in a Missouri state prison using the lethal injection drug pentobarbital, Missouri Department of Corrections spokesperson Karen Pojmann told Forbes.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from Johnson’s attorneys to pause the execution earlier Tuesday, and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson rejected a bid for clemency on Monday, writing that the state is “prepared to deliver justice.”

Johnson’s lawyers told the high court their client suffered from intellectual disabilities for decades, meaning his execution could violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, per the court’s 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision.

Laurence Komp, one of Johnson’s attorneys, told Forbes he’s “disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s decision and “profoundly saddened” by the execution.

Key Background

Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder for using a hammer to kill three convenience store workers during a botched 1994 robbery. His case has lingered for decades, largely due to concerns about his mental fitness. Johnson’s lawyers told the U.S. Supreme Court this week he was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, had extreme difficulties in school, has lower-than-average IQ scores and language skills and “operates at the equivalent of a 12-year-old boy for his level of independence.” Surgeons also removed large portions of his brain tissue in 2008 after discovering a tumor. Despite these concerns, the Missouri Supreme Court chose not to stop Johnson’s execution in August, concluding that Johnson isn’t sufficiently intellectually disabled because he was able to “plan, strategize, and problem solve” during the 1994 murders.

Chief Critic

Several high-profile Missouri politicians had objected to Johnson’s execution and urged Parson to call it off. Last week, Democratic Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver called the planned execution a “grave act of injustice,” and former Gov. Bob Holden (D) wrote an op-ed that said he supports capital punishment generally but thinks Johnson deserves clemency.

Surprising Fact

Archbishop Christophe Pierre — the Vatican’s top envoy to the United States — urged Parson to grant clemency last week, in a letter sent on Pope Francis’ behalf. Pierre said his request was based on Johnson’s “doubtful intellectual capacity,” the Catholic Church-owned Vatican News reported last week.

Surprising Fact

Johnson asked to be executed via firing squad, claiming pentobarbital — a controversial drug often used for executions — posed a risk of seizures because Johnson suffered from epilepsy. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Johnson’s case earlier this year, with the court’s three liberal justices dissenting.


About 2,500 U.S. prisoners are currently on death row, the vast majority of whom were sentenced by state courts, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Biden administration ordered a moratorium on new federal executions earlier this year, following pressure from advocates who say the death penalty is cruel and tinged by racial discrimination. However, this halt doesn’t apply to state death row inmates, and the U.S. Department of Justice has continued to seek the death penalty in some ongoing cases.

Further Reading

Missouri man executed for killing 3 workers in ’94 robbery (Associated Press)

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