The State of Missouri Just Murdered A Disabled Black Man

Ilana Quinn
5 min readOct 10, 2021

The cruel inhumanity of the death penalty

Photo by Jeremy Weis on New York Times

On October 5th, 2021, a 61-year-old mentally disabled man named Ernest Lee Johnson was executed. He was convicted of killing three people during a 1994 convenience store robbery in Columbia, Missouri, after which he was placed in a Bonne Terre prison.

The three victims were 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs, and 58-year-old Fred Jones. Johnson admitted to killing the three with a claw hammer, then placing their bodies in a cooler.

Since his arrest, Johnson expressed remorse — which of course is not enough to restore the lives of the victims and erase the pain of their families, but suggests he was not a heartless killer.

Medical examiners and Johnson’s legal team also cited evidence of his severe intellectual disability, which he has had since birth. His intellectual disability was exacerbated when he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2008, along with 20% of his brain tissue.

His attorney, Jeremy Weis, stated that Johnson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had “the intellectual capacity of a child.”

For this reason, when he was facing the death penalty, Johnson asked that he be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection — which can lead to painful seizures.

His request was denied.

Despite appeals for clemency to the Missouri Supreme Court from multiple lawmakers, anti-death penalty advocates such as Sister Helen Prejean — most well-known for her role in the 1995 movie adaptation Dead Man Walking, where she is played by Susan Sarandon — and the Pope, the justices upheld their decision to execute Johnson.

The Supreme Court justices argued if Johnson could commit such a heinous crime, surely his intellectual disability could not be so severe.

Before being killed by lethal injection, Johnson wrote the following letter:



Ilana Quinn

I am a university student who writes under a pseudonym about history, life and faith.