Stop death row executions.

Ernest Lee Johnson

Ernest Lee Johnson (Kansas City Star)

Take Action

  • Call Governor Parson at (573) 751-3222 and demand that he stop the execution:
  • “Hi, my name is _____, and I live in [city and zip code]. I am calling today to ask that Governor Parson grant clemency to Ernest Lee Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed on Oct. 5th, 2021. As a person with an intellectual disability, Ernest should not be eligible for execution. [Insert more information from talking points below.] Please stop this execution and grant Ernest clemency. Thank you for your time.”
  • If the mailbox is full, send an email to https://governor.mo.gov/contact-us.
  • Those in Missouri should attend vigils to be held in four cities. The earliest starts at noon and the latest at 6 PM.
  • Support Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty or a local organization fighting capital punishment and incarceration.

Pope Francis has joined Congressional Representatives Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver II to encourage Missouri governor Michael Parson to halt an upcoming execution. Neither the politicians nor the Pope denies that Ernest Lee Johnson, a Black Missourian, committed appalling acts in 1994. Nonetheless, they believe that his execution would be a travesty. Looking at the details of this case, it is hard to avoid the same conclusion. Even those who support capital punishment — the state-sponsored killing of prisoners — might agree that Johnson’s execution would be unjust. It is an injustice deeply connected to the American system of white supremacy, a system deeply connected to this country’s political and legal institutions. 

In 1994, Johnson killed three people in the course of an armed robbery. This is, of course, an indefensible act. But under Missouri law, those with “substantial limitations in general functioning” are considered to have an intellectual disability (The Guardian). The courts have found that the execution of people with intellectual disabilities is an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive or cruel punishments (AP). 

Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Johnson had 20% of his brain mass surgically removed while a brain tumor was excised. He was left with an IQ between 67 and 77. His public defender says his client, therefore, qualifies as a person with intellectual disabilities. See our previous article about the under-resourced public defender systemIn the words of a former Missouri Supreme Court Judge, “Mr. Johnson is a person with intellectual deficits so significant that a reasonable jury would not have recommended execution. Under constitutional standards, his execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution as interpreted for decades in U.S. Supreme Court decisions” (Kansas City Star). Johnson is scheduled to be executed at 6 PM today (MADP). 

A letter sent by the Vatican’s envoy to the United States on behalf of Pope Francis implored Missouri’s governor to grant Johnson clemency. “His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity,” the letter reads. “When violence of all types is restrained, even the violence of legal execution, all of society benefits” (Vatican News).

Two members of the Missouri Congressional delegation also oppose Johnson’s execution. In a statement, Bush and Cleaver cited the “moral depravity” of executions. “Like slavery and lynching did before it,” they said, “the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities” (The Guardian). 

The “color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America” (ACLU). 55% of people awaiting execution are people of color, though the United States is 62% white (Census). 80% of those on death row in Colorado are people of color, as are 72% of those in Louisiana and 70% in Pennsylvania. 

Studies from across the country all found the same result: that a defendant is dramatically more likely to be sentenced to die if the victim in question was white (ACLU). “Racial disparites are present at every stage of a capital case,” said the Death Penalty Information Center’s Robert Dunham. “The modern death penalty is the direct descendent of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation” (DPIC). Though Missouri Governor Mike Parson has yet to stay Johnson’s execution, he was happy to pardon Mark and Patricia McCloskey (Kansas City Star), affluent white people who brandished a rifle and aimed a pistol at BLM protestors (BBC). 

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” wrote Dr. King 58 years ago. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever… I had hoped the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I hoped too much” (Letter From Jail). To kill Johnson would be “yet another indictment of a system so bloodthirsty that it delights in vengeance against those who don’t even know why they’re being punished” (Kansas City Star). 

You don’t have to be religious to see the logic of the Vatican’s statement: killing is killing, whether committed in a back alley or legally, by the government, in front of news cameras. An execution is simply a murder committed by the state, with the murderers receiving public pensions in place of arrest. To execute a convicted person does not erase their original violent act. It merely adds a second. Opposing a racist system’s state-sanctioned murders is a political, moral, and human imperative. 

Key Takeaways

  • The state of Missouri plans to unconstitutionally execute a Black man with intellectual disabilities.
  • Black and Brown people are substantially more likely to be executed than their white peers, particularly if the victim is white.
  • People of color comprise the majority of people on death row.

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