On October 5th, 2021, a 61-year-old mentally disabled man named Ernest Lee Johnson was executed. He was convicted of killing three people during a 1994 convenience store robbery in Columbia, Missouri, after which he was placed in a Bonne Terre prison.
The three victims were 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs, and 58-year-old Fred Jones. Johnson admitted to killing the three with a claw hammer, then placing their bodies in a cooler.
Since his arrest, Johnson expressed remorse — which of course is not enough to restore the lives of the victims and erase the pain of their families, but suggests he was not a heartless killer.
Medical examiners and Johnson’s legal team also cited evidence of his severe intellectual disability, which he has had since birth but was exacerbated when he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2008, along with 20% of his brain tissue.
His attorney, Jeremy Weis, stated that Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had “the intellectual capacity of a child.”
For this reason, when he was facing the death penalty, Johnson asked that he be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection — which can lead to painful seizures.
His request was denied.
Despite appeals for clemency to the Missouri Supreme Court from multiple lawmakers, anti-death penalty advocates such as Sister Helen Prejean — most well-known for her role in the 1995 movie adaptation Dead Man Walking, where she is played by Susan Sarandon — and the Pope, the justices upheld their decision to execute Johnson.
The Supreme Court justices argued if Johnson could plan and commit such a heinous crime, surely his intellectual disability could not be so severe.
Before being killed by lethal injection, Johnson wrote the following letter:
In Johnson’s case, pleas for clemency did not solely revolve around his intellectual disability. Rather, anti-death penalty advocates continue to argue that executions do not bring healing to victims, nor do they restore what has been lost in violent crimes.
Sister Helen Prejean—who has spent time with many prisoners on death row and currently advocates for abolition—argues in her book, Dead Man Walking, the death penalty is too often incorrectly applied to be supported:
In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is, however, one piece of moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government — which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.
Sister Prejean also suggests the death penalty is most often applied to specific populations, including the poor:
The death penalty is a poor person’s issue. Always remember that: after all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.
Besides targeting the poor, the death penalty — while less applied than ever before — follows a disturbing pattern. Namely, capital punishment is most often used against Black men.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 45.6% of prisoners awaiting executions in Texas are Black men. That number is alarming considering the US Department of Justice reported in 2018 that Black perpetrators accounted for 29% of violent crimes. According to the same report, white perpetrators accounted for 52% of violent crimes.
It is impossible to ignore how the racist history of the death penalty parallels its current existence.
Many have argued the disproportionate killing of Black men through the death penalty is reminiscent of the history of lynchings in the United States, where thousands of Black men and women were violently murdered by white mobs, their bodies often strung from trees.
In a way that can be compared to the death penalty, most victims of lynchings were Black men — who were tortured and murdered as retribution for perceived crimes.
Oftentimes, these men were killed as they were accused of sexual transgressions of white women, claims which were routinely fabricated according to the NAACP. These lynchings were undoubtedly motivated by racism and racial stereotypes about Black male identities being inherently sexually aggressive and subversive.
As evidenced by Johnson’s murder, these stereotypes are still pervasive in the twenty-first century. Black men are executed more often than white men who have committed the same crimes because they are more easily deemed likely to re-offend.
With the declining use of the death penalty in many states, it is also hard to ignore the fact that it is applied against Black men in the same areas in which they were historically lynched.
Some would argue it is more difficult to prove whether the current death penalty — which exists in most states but is increasingly less enforced — is a vehicle of racial violence. But the aforementioned disproportionate number of Black men on death row reinforces the idea that the death penalty — like many other institutions — is steeped in racial bias.
President Biden, who publicly campaigned as the first presidential candidate to promise to end the death penalty, has remained eerily silent on Ernest Lee Johnson’s execution, despite democrats such as Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver speaking against the continued use of capital punishment.
This essay does not seek to argue the death penalty should be equally applied to all prisoners regardless of color. Nor does it suggest the crimes Johnson committed were not morally wrong.
On the contrary, the death penalty, regardless of how rarely it is used, does not consider the fundamental sanctity of all human life — not just the lives of those we want to protect—a basic belief that has governed human societies from the beginning of time.
The death penalty is irreversible and does not acknowledge the discovery of new evidence, which may appear to suggest the convicted are not guilty after they are murdered. Since 1973, 159 people have been released from death row after the surface of new evidence proved their innocence.
In light of Johnson’s death, it is also important to realize racial bias affects the application of the death penalty.
Despite Johnson’s medically proven disability, he was killed. Coupled with aforementioned statistical evidence, it is easy to believe his appeals for clemency were ignored because of his identity as a Black man.
As a Christian, I find it impossible to reconcile the death penalty with my fundamental beliefs: that every single person — no matter how many evil or horrible things they have done — is deserving of redemption and forgiveness. After all, Jesus Christ died for all of our sins, not only the holiest among us.
What Johnson did was undoubtedly wrong, but Biblically, there are no concessions to take the lives of others. To do so is an absolute perversion of human dignity.
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