Private Appeal Turned Public, Former Gov. Bob Holden Urges Gov. Parson to Stay Ernest Johnson’s Missouri Execution This Tuesday


By Gina Kim and Joshua Cenzano

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – Twenty men were executed during former Gov. Bob Holden’s term. But he admits to exercising clemency in exceptional cases, one being the execution of Ernest Johnson, scheduled for next Tuesday, Oct. 5.

Records left by mental health professionals since Johnson’s childhood indicate he satisfies the state’s three requirements for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: sub-average intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive behavior, and onset deficits before the age of 18.

Importantly, the Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia has rendered the execution of intellectually disabled individuals unconstitutional since 2002.

By a clinical standard, Johnson functions “at the equivalent of a 12-year-old for his level of independence and at an age of four years and eight months for his daily living skills,” states the Missouri Independent.

But the court rejected Johnson’s ineligibility for the death penalty this last week, and it only leaves current Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to utilize his clemency powers and commute Johnson to life without parole.

After privately submitting a letter to Gov. Parson, former Gov. Holden now enters the public sphere, urging the governor to stay the execution or gather a neutral Board of Inquiry and determine Johnson’s disability level.

In his public appeal through the Missouri Independent, Holden acknowledges the need to memorialize Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones, and Mable Scruggs—brutally murdered inside a Columbia Casey’s convenience store back in 1994.

Appropriate legal response, even lifetime incarceration, must be made for the sake of community safety, Holden says.

Nevertheless, the former governor maintains his decision under Atkins. Death-sentencing of IDD individuals is prohibited. He maintains that Missouri officials should not overstep.

Johnson’s mother endured a drug and alcohol addiction while pregnant, leading to his diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Johnson scored below the IDD threshold for five of six full-scale IQ tests across three decades. He repeated 2nd, 3rd, and 9th grades while attending Special Education classes.

Johnson and his siblings grew up in numerous homes, suffering repeated physical abuse. As children, severe food insecurity and poverty forced them to steal to make ends meet. As teens, they lived with their mother again, who in turn prostituted all her children, exchanging drugs and alcohol as incentives.

Finally, concern over Johnson’s probable intellectual disability propelled the former governor into action.

“Nothing excuses what Johnson did,” Holden says. “But if our state is to be guided by the rule of law, we must temper our understandable anger with reason and compassion for the most vulnerable among us, including Ernest Johnson.”

Holden does not propose freedom as a reasonable solution. But he notes Johnson’s nonviolent criminal record prior to 1994 and his compliant behavior in Potosi prison as solid grounds for a life re-sentencing.

About The Author

Gina is a sophomore at UCSB majoring in History of Public Policy and Law. She's an aspiring professional writing minor interested in studying law.

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