The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from Missouri death row inmate Ernest Johnson, who was seeking execution by firing squad
The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from a Missouri death row inmate who was seeking execution by firing squad to avoid pain that could come from a lethal injection.
Over the dissent of the three liberal justices, the court left in place a lower court ruling against inmate Ernest Johnson, 60, that could allow him to be executed by lethal injection. He is on death row for bludgeoning three convenience store workers to death with a hammer during a robbery in 1994.
Johnson has argued that Missouri’s lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, could trigger painful seizures during execution because of a brain condition. Johnson has part of a benign tumor in his brain.
The effect of the court’s order Monday is to prevent Johnson from amending his lawsuit to include the possibility of execution by firing squad, which is not authorized under Missouri law.
Based on prior Supreme Court rulings, an inmate who objects to the state’s chosen method of execution has to suggest an alternate means.
Victims: Columbia, Missouri, convenience store workers Mary Bratcher (left, with her son), Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones (right) were closing up on February 12, 1994 when Johnson came in and beat them to death with a claw hammer
Johnson killed the three workers in order to steal money to buy drugs. Above: police tape covers an area where the incident happened in 1994
Johnson initially suggested he could be put to death using nitrogen gas, which is allowed in Missouri. But the Supreme Court has held that states could decline to use a method of execution that has no track record, as is the case with nitrogen gas.
But when Johnson tried to suggest a firing squad, a method with a long history of use in the US, judges on the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeal said he acted too late.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for herself and colleagues Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan that Johnson should be able to make his case.
‘Think about what the Eighth Circuit has done in the interest of moving things along more quickly,’ she wrote. ‘Johnson has plausibly pleaded that, if he is executed using pentobarbital, he will experience pain akin to torture. Those factual allegations must be accepted as true at this stage of the litigation.’
She continued: ‘We should not countenance the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment simply for the sake of expediency. That is what the Eighth Circuit’s decision has done. Because this Court chooses to stand idly by, I respectfully dissent.’
The state planned to execute Johnson in 2015, but the Supreme Court intervened on his behalf then.
Johnson (left and right) argued that Missouri’s lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, could trigger painful seizures during execution because of a tumor in his brain
Johnson was a frequent customer at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia, Missouri. On February 12, 1994, store workers Mary Bratcher, 46, Mable Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58, were closing for the night when Johnson arrived.
He ransacked the store seeking money to buy drugs, beat all three workers to death with a claw hammer and hid their bodies in a cooler.
Police arrested Johnson after finding a bank bag, stolen money and store receipts at his home.
Other death row inmates have filed similar arguments claiming medical conditions should preclude them from execution, with mixed success.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor (bottom right) wrote for herself and her liberal colleagues colleagues Stephen Breyer (2nd R, bottom row) and Elena Kagan (2nd L, top row) that Johnson should be able to make his case
In 2014, the US Supreme Court stepped in hours before Russell Bucklew was scheduled to die in Missouri for a 1996 killing, after Bucklew argued that pain and suffering were possible due to a rare congenital condition that causes weakened and malformed blood vessels as well as tumors in his nose and throat.
The case was sent back, and Bucklew was put to death in October 2019 after being administered a lethal dose of pentobarbital. There were no reported complications with the execution.
Missouri executed 74-year-old Cecil Clayton in March 2015 after the nation’s high court rejected claims that Clayton had diminished mental capacity due to a 1970s sawmill accident that cost him part of his brain’s frontal lobe.