Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Monday 20 May |
Saint of the Day: Mary, Mother of the Church
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

In spite of pope’s pleas, Missouri man is executed


felipe caparros / Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 10/06/21

Ernest Lee Johnson was characterized as being intellectually disabled. Pope Francis appealed to governor on behalf of Johnson's humanity and the sacredness of life.

The State of Missouri executed a man Tuesday whose case drew the support of Pope Francis.

Ernest Lee Johnson, 61, was executed by lethal injection in the state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, in spite of a papal appeal to Gov. Mike Parson. He had been convicted of killing three store employees during a 1994 robbery.

Other advocates argued that executing Johnson, who has been characterized as having intellectual disabilities, would be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that the use of capital punishment against persons who are intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But Pope Francis, in a letter written by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, argued against the execution on the grounds of Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of human life.

Writing “as the personal representative” of Pope Francis and “in the Holy Father’s name,” Archbishop Pierre, in a September 27 letter, asked Gov. Parson “to halt the planned execution” and grant Johnson “some appropriate form of clemency.”

Pierre said the appeal for clemency is not based “on the facts and circumstances of his crimes,” asking rhetorically, “Who could not argue that grave crimes such as his deserve grave punishments?” according to Vatican News. Nor is the plea “based solely upon Mr. Johnson’s doubtful intellectual capacity.”

Instead, “His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life,” the nuncio wrote.

Archbishop Pierre invited Parson to consider that, “when all violence of all types is restrained, even the violence of legal execution, all of society benefits.” And he recalled Pope Francis’ warning, in last year’s encyclical Fratelli tutti, not to allow “the atrocity of their crimes to feed a desire for vengeance” but to seek instead to heal the wounds that have been inflicted.

Supporting the dignity of life

Noting Missouri’s “courageous stands in support of the dignity of life” — for which he expresses gratitude — Pierre wrote that rejecting the death penalty in this case “would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life.” He quoted Francis, who observed that “if I do not deny the dignity of the worst criminals, I will not deny human dignity to anyone.”

“Is not a universal recognition of our sacred human dignity the best possible defense for society against the war and violence in our world?” Pierre concluded.

Johnson’s lawyers argued there was overwhelming evidence of the inmate’s intellectual disability. They asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to halt the execution, but the court denied the petition in an unsigned order late Tuesday afternoon. The Missouri Supreme Court had already rejected Johnson’s intellectual disability claim in August.

In a statement on Monday, the governor’s office said that evidence showed that Johnson “went to great lengths to plan and conceal his crime.”

“Three juries have reviewed Mr. Johnson’s case and recommended a sentence of death,” the statement said. “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.”

Johnson, whose mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, scored low on IQ tests throughout his life, and had the mental capacity of a child, his lawyers said.

On Monday, he expressed remorse for his crimes and thanked those who had supported and prayed for him. 

“I am sorry and have remorse for what I do,” he wrote in a letter dated the day before his execution. “I want to say that I love my family and friends. I am thankful of all that my [lawyer] has done for me. They made me feel love as if I was family to them.”

He added: “I love the Lord with all my heart and soul. If I am executed I no were [sic] I am going to heaven. Because I ask him to forgive me.”

Pope FrancisPro-life
Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.