Oct 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Missouri governor declines clemency request despite plea from pope, lawmakers

Photo of Mike Parson speaking from a podium to a room of media workers
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson addresses media at the Missouri State Capitol Building. Photo: Michael B. Thomas via Getty Images

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has declined to grant clemency to a death row inmate set to face execution on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Pope Francis had joined lawmakers and activists in calling on the Republican governor to reject the death penalty for Ernest Johnson, who is convicted of killing three people during a 1994 robbery at a convenience store. His lawyer argues that executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans executions of intellectually disabled people, per AP.

  • Johnson, 61, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and lost roughly 20% of his brain tissue after a benign tumor was removed in 2008, according to his lawyer, who noted that multiple IQ and other tests have also shown he has the intellectual capacity of a child.

What they're saying: "The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court's order," Parson said in a statement.

  • "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," a release from his office added.
  • Parson had been considering reducing his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A representative had written in a letter to Parson that Pope Francis "wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life."

  • "[W]hen all violence of all types is restrained, even the violence of legal execution, all of society benefits."
  • Rejecting the death penalty "would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life."

The big picture: Racial justice activists and two Missouri Congress members had also pushed Parson to grant clemency to Johnson, who is Black.

  • Democratic Reps. Cori Bush and Emmanuel Cleaver argue that executing Johnson would be a "grave act of injustice," according to the Kansas City Star.
  • "The fact of the matter is that these death sentences are not about justice," they wrote in a letter reported by the Star. "They are about who has institutional power and who doesn’t. Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities."
  • Black people are overrepresented in death row executions, per the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's decision to decline clemency.

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