BONNE TERRE, Mo. – Ernest Lee Johnson was executed by the state of Missouri on Tuesday after spending more than a quarter-century on death row. It was the first execution in Missouri since May 2020.
Johnson, 61, died following a lethal injection of pentobarbital at a Missouri penitentiary in Bonne Terre, located about 50 miles south of St. Louis. He was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m.
Johnson killed three employees at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia, Missouri in February 1994. He was sentenced to death in June 1995.
Court records show that on Feb. 12, 1994, Johnson borrowed a .25-caliber pistol from his girlfriend’s 18-year-old son, with plans to rob the store just after it closed for money to buy drugs. Three workers were in the store: manager Mary Bratcher, 46, and employees Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58.
In a 2004 video interview, Johnson admitted to shooting the victims and attacking them with a claw hammer. He hid their bodies in the bathroom and store cooler before leaving with more than $440.
Johnson’s attorney argued his client had an intellectual disability and executing him would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. According to the lawyer, Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had a low IQ. In 2008, Johnson had part of his brain removed because of a tumor.
Pope Francis and Missouri Representatives Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver had petitioned Governor Mike Parson to grant Johnson clemency. The governor denied their requests on Monday.
In 2018, Pope Francis changed church teaching to say capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on human dignity.
The Supreme Court denied a final appeal late Tuesday afternoon prior to Johnson’s execution.
This was the seventh U.S. execution in 2021. Of the six previous executions this year, three were in Texas, and three involved federal prisoners.
Johnson hand-wrote a final statement shared by the Missouri Department of Corrections. The note indicated he was sorry and had remorse for the crimes.
He stated he loved his family and friends and was grateful for the work his lawyer had done. The note also thanked those who had prayed for him. He wrote he is going to heaven because he asked for forgiveness.
Relatives of the victims declined to release a statement following the execution.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.