Columbia, Missouri is the state’s fourth-largest city. Home to the University of Missouri, the city has a reputation for progressive politics and rich cultural institutions. It was here where one of the most ghastly, demonic murders in the state’s recent history occurred, a case that was just recently turned down by the United States Supreme Court. At the center of it is Ernest Lee Johnson, a 61 year-old death row inmate who is likely months away from execution.
Just after 1 AM on February 13, 1994, a Boone County sheriff’s deputy responded to a call about a possible disturbance at the Casey’s General Store. When the deputy looked through the windows, he saw the open cash register and blood smears on the door. He called for backup.
Inside, police discovered the bodies of Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones, and Mable Scruggs, who had been working the night shift at the store. Their injuries were horrendous: Bratcher had been stabbed at least 10 times in her left hand with a screwdriver, eight of the stabs going through her hand. Blunt force injuries to her face revealed that she had been struck with a hammer over a dozen times. A four-inch long cut had been made into the side of Bratcher’s face, and numerous other wounds had been made around her nose and mouth. Fred Jones’ body was found in the store’s cooler. He suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound to his cheek, and had been hit ten times in the face with a hammer. Jones had been cut with the claw end of the hammer, causing the area around his left eye to sink into his skull. Mable Scruggs had been struck eight times in the head and suffered cuts around her eyes, nose, and mouth. The medical examiner was unable to determine at what point the victims lost consciousness, but Bratcher’s injuries indicated she had tried to defend herself.
Ernest Lee Johnson was known to be a frequent customer at Casey’s, and had been to the store just hours before the murders. Earlier on the 12th, he had borrowed a gun from his girlfriend’s son, Rodriguez, and test-fired it in the backyard of his girlfriend’s home. A guest at the home said that it looked like “[Johnson] was about to go rob somebody.” When he arrived home later that night, he had specks of blood on his face. Johnson put his bloody clothing into a trash bag and ordered his girlfriend’s other son, Antwane, to burn it. Johnson returned the gun to Rodriguez, and the two proceeded to count the money stolen from Casey’s. After the bodies were found, Johnson went to a shopping mall and purchases over $200 worth of merchandise. About 14 hours after police found the bodies, a police officer was sent to question Johnson about any information he knew. Police noticed several inconsistencies in his story along with inculpatory statements. Armed with a search warrant, police recovered over $400, burned checks, a live .25 caliber round, Nike sneakers, and coin wrappers.
Less than 24 hours after the murders at Casey’s, Johnson was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Ernest Johnson’s commenced in May 1995. The prosecution sought the death penalty for each murder charge, and the evidence against Johnson was overwhelming. Police recovered bloody clothing found in a field a short distance from the crime scene, along with a screwdriver and a pair of gloves. Tests revealed that the blood on the clothes matched all three victims, and hairs found on the gloves were identified as Scruggs’. Bloody footprints inside the store matched Johnson’s Nike sneakers, and the evidence found at his girlfriend’s house incontrovertibly linked him to the crime. It was a slam-dunk case, the prosecution argued. The jury agreed, finding Johnson guilty of all three murders.
His attorneys presented testimony from family members about his abusive and poverty-stricken upbringing, as well as psychologists who testified about Johnson’s low IQ and evidence of fetal alcohol syndrome. The prosecution rebutted the defense’s testimony, arguing that Johnson showed signs of “pervasive” anti-social personality disorder and that he knew enough to be held accountable for his actions. Again, the jury agreed, handing down three death sentences on June 19, 1995.
During his quarter-century stay on death row, Ernest Johnson’s physical condition has deteriorated significantly. In 2008, he required surgery on a benign brain tumor, resulting in a hole being drilled into the top of his head to relieve pressure. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of his brain had to be removed in order to remove the tumor. Since the surgery, Johnson’s attorneys have claimed he suffers epileptic seizures and is intellectually disabled. In 2015, however, the Missouri Supreme Court set his execution date for November of that year.
As Ernest Johnson’s attorneys scrambled to stay his execution, prison officials moved Johnson from death row at the Potosi Correctional Center to the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, the site where Missouri carries out executions. He was placed in a windowless cell furnished with a bed, a sink/toilet, a shower, and a small desk. Johnson’s execution was scheduled for 6 PM on November 3, 2015. Mary Bratcher’s three children, now adults, were planning to watch Johnson’s final moments. As the clock ticked down the hours to 6 PM, a phone near the execution chamber rang. The United States Supreme Court, by a unanimous vote, stopped Johnson’s execution due to concerns that the lethal injection could cause pain. Johnson was immediately transferred back to death row at Potosi.
Missouri is one of a handful of states that uses the anesthetic Pentobarbital to execute death row inmates. Pentobarbital is a barbiturate, which causes rapid unconsciousness and death when injected in lethal doses (typically more than two grams). For executions, five grams are used. This protocol is also used for assisted suicides in countries like the Netherlands. Missouri has used this protocol for over 20 executions, taking an average of eight to nine minutes from start to finish. No complications have been reported in any of Missouri’s executions using this drug.
In the five years since Johnson’s cancelled execution, his case has lingered in federal courts, until just last year, when the Supreme Court took up his case. Johnson’s attorneys suggested that Missouri use the firing squad to carry out his death sentence, and argued that because of the medical complications from his 2008 surgery, a lethal injection of Pentobarbital would cause Johnson severe pain during his execution. The Supreme Court ruled in Bucklew v. Precythe in 2019 that a death row inmate bears the burden of proving that not only must the inmate demonstrate that the existing method would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but that the proposed alternative method can be implemented. Missouri law does not allow for execution by firing squad, and although Johnson’s attorneys have claimed that Pentobarbital would trigger seizures, they ignored the fact that Pentobarbital is used to treat epileptic seizures. Johnson’s legal stratagem was predicated on helping him avoid the only appropriate legal sanction. It wasn’t based on legitimate grounds, it was based on obstructing justice. After a half-decade of appellate profligacy, the Supreme Court finally did what they should have done six years ago: they denied his appeal. The decision came down on May 24, 2021.
Now that Ernest Johnson’s appeals have been exhausted, the Missouri Supreme Court can set an execution date. Under state law, execution dates must be set between 90 and 120 days in advance, but additional litigation could push Johnson’s eventual execution date back to perhaps October or November of this year.
Undoubtedly, his attorneys will continue to file appeals alleging that Pentobarbital will trigger an epileptic seizure, despite the overwhelming evidence that Johnson, like the nearly two dozen inmates who went before him, will almost certainly receive a peaceful, swift, and painless death. He will be afforded a death more peaceful than not only his victims did, but probably more peaceful than most of us will. Unlike his victims, who were subjected to gruesome, nightmarish ends on that February night 27 years ago, Johnson’s demise will be humane, and it will be just. On the day that Ernest Lee Johnson is finally strapped down to the gurney in Missouri’s execution chamber, justice will finally be served, after nearly three decades of delay.
UPDATE: The Missouri Supreme Court has set Ernest Johnson’s execution date for Tuesday, October 5, 2021.
UPDATE: Ernest Johnson was executed by lethal injection on October 5, 2021. There were no problems associated with his execution.
State of Missouri v. Earnest Lee Johnson
On April 22, 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the death penalty for Earnest Lee Johnson. Johnson was convicted…
20 Jun 1995, Page 8 - The Springfield News-Leader at Newspapers.com
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