On Tuesday night, the Supreme Court halted the execution of convicted murderer Ernest Lee Johnson on the grounds of a medical condition that may lead to undue pain as the result of lethal injection.
Ernest Lee Johnson, 55, who was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scrubbs, and Fred Jones — whom he bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer — has been given a temporary reprieve after his execution was halted Tuesday evening, pending a ruling from a lower court, reports the Washington Post. According to filings submitted to the Supreme Court by Johnson’s attorneys, in 2008, Johnson had surgery to remove a brain tumor, but part of the tumor could not be removed. As a result of the surgery, Johnson’s attorney, Jeremy Weis, alleges he is missing between 15 and 20 percent of his brain. This brain damage has caused the death row inmate to have seizures in the past, and Johnson fears that the drug used in lethal injections — Pentobarbital — may cause him to suffer seizures during the execution process.
The order to halt Johnson’s execution alleges that “Missouri’s method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment as applied to a person with his particular medical condition.”
“A supporting affidavit by a medical expert states that ‘[a]s a result of Mr. Johnson’s brain tumor, brain defect, and brain scar, a substantial risk of serious harm will occur during his execution as result of a violent seizure that may be induced by [the] Pentobarbital injection.’ “
Though the office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says that Johnson’s execution should proceed as scheduled — arguing that Johnson waited too long to file his complaint — Supreme Court justices said they were granting Johnson’s stay of execution request, pending a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.
Dr. Joel Zivot, the doctor responsible for reviewing Johnson’s health prior to his execution at the request of his lawyers, confirms what Johnson’s lawyers wrote in the stay of execution order, saying Johnson is at significant medical risk should his execution be allowed to proceed, according to Mashable.
“Mr. Johnson faces a significant medical risk for a serious seizure as the direct result of the combination of the Missouri lethal injection protocol and Mr. Johnson’s permanent and disabling neurologic disease.”
Johnson was sentenced to execution after being convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for killing Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scrubbs, and Fred Jones during a closing-time robbery of a general store on February 12, 1994. In addition to bludgeoning the three to death with a hammer, Bratcher was also stabbed at least ten times with a screwdriver, and Jones was shot in the face. Allegedly trying to find money to buy drugs, after the murders, Ernest Johnson then hid the bodies in a cooler. Johnson was arrested soon after the murders, when police found a bank bag, money, and store receipts in his home.
Johnson was already on death row awaiting execution when the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that executing the mentally handicapped was unnecessarily cruel. As a result of the 2001 ruling, Johnson’s lawyers appealed the execution decision on the grounds that Ernest Johnson — whose IQ was tested after his conviction and was measured at 67 — has an intellectual disability, and is therefore ineligible for execution. All of Johnson’s prior appeals to halt his execution have been unsuccessful.
Ernest Johnson was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. local time, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to halt it, and though the execution warrant is only good for 24 hours, and thus expires at 5:59 p.m. local time Wednesday, officials are still unsure whether Johnson’s appeal will be resolved by that time.
Should convicted murderer Ernest Johnson have his execution halted permanently? Sound off in the comments below.
[Photo by Mike Simons / Getty Images]