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Remnants of brain tumor could stop Ernest Johnson execution

The remains of a brain tumor may halt the execution of a convicted Columbia killer.

Attorneys for Ernest Lee Johnson filed the complaint Thursday in Missouri’s federal Western District Court to stop the state’s lethal injection scheduled for November 3. A jury convicted Johnson of killing three people – Fred Jones, Mary Bratcher and Mable Scruggs – at the old Casey’s at the corner of Rice Road and Ballenger Lane in 1994. Johnson’s case went back to the penalty phase three times since, with each jury upholding the death penalty.

The new complaint, filed by Kansas City attorney Jeremy Weis, cites the risk posed by the remnants of a “parasaggital meningioma brain tumor” during lethal injection. The slow-growing tumor was found in 2008, and doctors removed the meningioma in August of that year. However, they did not remove the whole tumor, and the “significant” portion of the brain removed in surgery could cause seizures during lethal injection.

Missouri uses a combination of midazolam and pentobaribital for executions. Weis said the two drugs “could trigger violent and uncontrollable seizures during the execution due to the existence of the meningioma, scarring and brain defect. Such violent and uncontrollable seizures will likely result in a severely painful execution.”

Johnson killed three Casey’s employees in February 1994.

Assistant Attorney General Gregory Goodwin filed the state’s response late Friday afternoon. Goodwin leaned on Missouri’s 18 “rapid and painless execution” since November 2013, calling Johnson’s claim “implausible.” Cecil Clayton, put to death for killing a Barry County sheriff’s deputy in 1996, also asked the federal court to stop his execution in March based on a missing piece of his brain. The U.S. Supreme Court denied that request.

“The execution of Clayton was rapid and painless, like the other 17 executions Missouri has carried out using Pentobarbital,” Goodwin wrote.

Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist from Atlanta’s Emory University, reviewed Johnson’s medical records in August of this year, the complaint said. Johnson told Dr. Zivot of “recurring throbbing pain” in his head, rating the pain a “7 out of 10.” Dr. Zivot also conducted the medical review for Russell Bucklew, whose Missouri execution was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court hours before it was scheduled to happen in May 2014.

“Dr. Zivot opines that the administration of Midazolam and Pentobarbital have the real and significant potential of promoting a seizure,” Weis’ wrote. “According to Dr. Zivot, there is a significant possibility of a drug-induced seizure.”

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