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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s no question that Ernest Lee Johnson was guilty of murder. He never denied killing three people inside a convenience store with a claw hammer in Columbia, Missouri, in 1994, during a robbery.
But for 27 years, his attorneys as well as anti-death penalty activists, politicians and — recently — Pope Francis have called on the state to consider Johnson’s low IQ and the removal of part of his brain to declare him intellectually incompetent and grant him a commutation to life in prison.
Clemency, however, was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to stay the execution. At 61, Johnson died by lethal injection at 6:11 p.m. Tuesday.
"He silently mouthed words to relatives as the process began," wrote Associated Press reporter Jim Salter, who witnessed the execution. "His breathing became labored, he puffed out his cheeks, then swallowed hard. Within seconds, all movement stopped."
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Eric Schmitt said that Johnson recollected the crime, planned it and tried to conceal it — all indicators, the state said, that he was competent enough to die.
"Mr. Johnson was tried and convicted for the brutal murder of three innocent victims," according to a statement from Parson's office. "The evidence showed Mr. Johnson went to great lengths to plan and conceal his crime."
The statement continued: "Mr. Johnson's claim that he is not competent to be executed has been reviewed and rejected by a jury and the courts six different times, including a unanimous decision by the Missouri Supreme Court. Mr. Johnson has received due process."
A daughter of one of the victims posted on Facebook about the execution, according to a local news station. NBC station KOMU reported that Carley Shaffer wrote: "I wish someone would have warned us that we would be here, 27 years, 7 months, and 22 days later, waiting for justice."
Jeremy Weiss, a federal public defender and attorney for Johnson, said the case is now over.
"While we disagree with the various orders, they were lawful and there wouldn’t be a basis to sue," he told the USA TODAY Network.
The execution shocked many in the anti-death penalty camp.
"What kind of country executes, murders someone who has an intellectual disability, someone who's so vulnerable, regardless of what crime they may have committed?" said Amy Fettig, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "We didn't take care of him enough to prevent that crime. And that's on us."
According to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2011-2012, about 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability. A March report by the BJS showed that more than 500,000 inmates had a cognitive disability.
Elyse Max, executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said "We mourn the loss of the victims lost in 1994," — Mary Bratcher, 46, Mabel Scruggs, 57, and Fred Jones, 58. All three were store employees at the Casey’s General Store in Columbia.
But Max said Johnson’s death should be cause for alarm. Johnson was born with fetal-alcohol syndrome and lost 20% of his brain during a 2008 surgery to remove a benign tumor.
"The execution was illegal," Max said.
The U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids executions in such cases, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. The high court voted 6-3 in that case, saying the Eighth Amendment should be interpreted based on “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
Johnson's attorneys said in a filing that multiple tests on Johnson's IQ showed he had a lifetime average score of 67.4 — well below the average of 100 and below the U.S. average of 98.
Parson, a Republican, cited rulings by state trial courts, the Missouri Supreme Court, a federal court of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
There were no victim statements before the execution in Bonne Terre, Missouri, about 170 miles from where the murders happened. But family members had previously said they wanted to proceed with the execution. Several victims' family members attended Tuesday evening, as did family and an attorney for Johnson.
Prison officials also said that about 60 protestors were at the courthouse pleading with the state to give Johnson a reprieve. .
State executions have become less common
Johnson's was the first execution in Missouri since 2020. That May, Walter Barton was put to death for a 1991 fatal stabbing of a woman aged 81.
Executions in the U.S. have declined in recent decades to historic lows as more states abolish the sentence, although there have been ups and downs, the center wrote in July. Last year, Colorado, for example, became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.
According to Pew Research Center, there were some 2,570 people on death row in the United States in 2019 — down nearly 20% from a high of 3,600 in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While views differ by race, background and political leanings, the center reported that a majority of Americans still approve of death as morally justified for heinous crimes like murder.
Although use of the death penalty is down, Max said it is a tool of politically motivated people who want to appear tough on crime for the electorate. And she said this execution, despite tests showing his intellect was so weak, was purely political — and that blame falls on Parson and Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Schmitt's spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said in an email that the office was not going to respond.
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest criminal justice reporter for USA TODAY Network.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Missouri executes man many claim was mentally incompetent