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State executes Ernest Lee Johnson for Columbia triple murder; state releases last offender statement

Watch a post-execution news conference in the player below.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

The state executed Ernest Lee Johnson on Tuesday, more than 25 years after he killed three gas station workers and following a last-ditch effort by his lawyers to save him.

The execution came after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one-sentence order Tuesday afternoon, saying "The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Kavanaugh and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied."

Johnson died from an injection of pentobarbital at 6:11 p.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre. He could be seen mouthing the words "I love you" to family members, according to an ABC 17 News reporter who witnessed the execution. Johnson's breathing became labored as the drug took effect. Then Johnson appeared to go to sleep.

The state of Missouri has released Ernest Johnson's last statement. Johnson wrote it on Oct. 4.

The Missouri Department of Corrections held a press conference after Johnson was put to death.

The spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections said there was no victim statement and then gave a timeline of the execution.

  • 5:16 p.m. - The Department of Corrections reported all petitions were denied and the execution sequence could begin
  • 5:41 p.m. - witnesses were moved into viewing area
  • 6:00 p.m. - The Missouri Attorney General's office reported there were no legal impediments in the execution of Johnson
  • 6:01 p.m. - Gov. Parson's office said to proceed
  • 6:02 p.m. - The drugs were administered to Johnson
  • 6:05 p.m. - The 5 minute timer was set
  • 6:11 p.m. - Johnson was pronounced dead

Johnson was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre. His attorneys, advocates and death penalty opponents have argued for years that Johnson has an intellectual disability, making his execution unconstitutional. In addition to low IQ scores, Johnson had fetal alcohol syndrome and lost brain tissue when a benign tumor was removed 13 years ago.

Johnson's lawyers renewed those arguments in a brief filed Monday with the Supreme Court. They claim Johnson's intellectual disability is well-established, that courts who rejected Johnson's appeals have misapplied precedent and that Missouri's jury instructions on intellectual disabilities are "flawed."

"This is not a close case," attorneys argue in legal documents. "Ernest Johnson is intellectually disabled. To permit the State of Missouri to execute Mr. Johnson undermines this Court’s authority, and precedent and would represent a fundamental miscarriage of justice."

Johnson was sentenced to death in 1995 after the 1994 killings of Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mable Scruggs -- workers at a Casey's General Store. Authorities say Johnson used a hammer and screwdriver in the brutal murders.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Monday that the state plans to move forward with plans to execute Johnson by lethal injection.

Protests took place across the state Tuesday to pressure the state to stop the execution. The ACLU of Missouri said the execution is "an endorsement of a racist and vengeful criminal legal system with no interest in judicatory integrity."

Check back for updates to this developing story and watch ABC 17 News at 5 and 6.

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Matthew Sanders

Matthew Sanders is the digital content director at ABC 17 News.

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Leila Mitchell

Leila is a Penn State graduate who started with KMIZ in March 2021. She studied journalism and criminal justice in college.

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