COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
Ernest Lee Johnson's path from a Casey's General Store in northeast Columbia to an execution room in the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center in Bonne Terre took 27 years to travel.
The case wound through courts across the U.S. before coming to an end on Tuesday. The Missouri Department of Corrections will kill Johnson by lethal injection for his murder of Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mabel Scruggs in 1994.
Johnson visited the Casey's General Store on Feb. 12, 1994, at the corner of Ballenger Lane and Rice Road. His third visit that day would end with him killing the three employees closing the store. Johnson robbed the store after using drugs, shooting, stabbing and bludgeoning Bratcher, Jones and Scruggs in the process.
Law enforcement arrived early the next morning when a family member of Jones called concerned. The discovery of the three bodies kicked off a search for evidence, eventually leading Columbia police officers to Johnson. He agreed to go to the station to talk to them and would make statements implying he was at the store the night of the murders. Other witnesses would show officers where Johnson had ordered them to hide evidence.
The Johnson case in the courts
A jury convicted Johnson in 1995 of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death for each of the murders.
The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence in 1998. The court said Johnson's attorney should have called a doctor who evaluated Johnson and diagnosed him with "cocaine intoxication delirium" from the drugs he took before the murders. The court said the doctor's testimony may have changed the jury's mind on punishment, possibly giving him life in prison.
A jury once more gave Johnson the death penalty in 1999. The Supreme Court this time upheld the conviction.
A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision gave Johnson another chance at rearguing his sentence. A 6-3 decision in Atkins v. Virginia ruled that states could not execute people with mental disabilities. Johnson's attorneys argued that they should be allowed to show a jury evidence of Johnson's own mental development. A doctor surmised Johnson had an IQ between 70 and 75 and suffered from fetal alcohol system at birth.
The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, with Judge Ronnie White writing "Missouri cannot execute a person who is mentally deficient. (Johnson) has shown that ample evidence was available but not sufficiently presented establishing that his mental capacity is questionable.”
A jury once more took up the issue in 2006. Once more, a jury returned three death sentences.
Nearly a decade later, the state of Missouri prepared for Johnson's execution. State agencies set a Nov. 3, 2015 execution by a lethal injection of pentobarbital.
Johnson began petitioning federal courts to put a halt to his execution. Doctors discovered scar tissue on Johnson's brain in 2012 from a surgery to remove a tumor in 2008. Dr. Joel Zivot would testify that he believed pentobarbital would cause Johnson painful seizures. Johnson's attorneys said this would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the Eighth Amendment.
Lower courts rejected the argument. But with witnesses and family gathered at the prison in Bonne Terre where Johnson was set to die, the U.S. Supreme Court put another halt in place. Justice Samuel Alito said the federal appeals court needed to properly hear Johnson's claims.
Johnson again bounced between federal courts to hear his case. Johnson wanted the state to use nitrogen-induced hypoxia to kill him. The lethal gas had never been used before in the U.S., but several states were considering how it might work.
Johnson would get part of his answer through a fellow Missouri death row inmate's case. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to toss out Russell Bucklew's similar claims of cruel and unusual punishment through lethal injection. The court said inmates could not force states to use untried methods of execution if they could prove at all the method used would cause them undue harm.
In May 2021, the high court refused to hear Johnson's case. His attorney asked for permission to instead request a death via firing squad from the state. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she would have allowed Johnson a chance to go back and make the argument.
"Missouri is now free to execute Johnson in a manner that, at this stage of the litigation, we must assume will be akin to torture given his unique medical condition," Sotomayor wrote.
With the U.S. Supreme Court putting an end to his case, the state once more set a date for execution. Johnson would receive a dose of pentobarbital on Oct. 5 in Bonne Terre.
The Supreme Court of Missouri rejected a bid to stop the execution in August. The court said Johnson had already litigated his mental disability years prior, and that nothing substantially new had come forward since then to warrant another hearing.