Pope Francis Joins Push to Save Death Row Inmate With Intellectual Disability

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Missouri Democratic congressmen Cori Bush and Emanual Cleaver II, along with Pope Francis, have raised a last-minute clemency plea on behalf of 61-year-old Ernest Lee Johnson. His lawyers and advocates argue his intellectual disability makes his execution unconstitutional and noted he also had roughly one-fifth of his brain tissue removed during a 2008 operation for a brain tumor, reports the Washington Post. Johnson, who is Black, was sentenced to death for killing three people while robbing a Columbia, Mo., convenience store in 1994.

Bush and Cleaver wrote the governor to argue that killing Johnson perpetuates the same cycles of trauma and violence against Black people as “slavery and lynching did before it.” Missouri is among only four — the others being Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas — to have resumed executions a year after many were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Jeremy Weis, Johnson’s public defender, has said Johnson “meets all statutory and clinical definitions” of intellectual disability and has scored between 67 and 77 in IQ tests over the years, a range that is below and within the threshold generally recognized as intellectually disabled. Missouri’s Supreme Court in August declined to halt Johnson’s execution and wrote in its decision that Johnson’s own recollections of the crime that he later relayed to a doctor “illustrate Johnson’s ability to plan, strategize, and problem solve — contrary to a finding of substantial subaverage intelligence.”

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