A man awaiting execution on death row has claimed death by lethal injection would cause him ‘severe pain’, and is appealing to be executed by lethal gas instead.
58-year-old convicted murderer Ernest Lee Johnson has a hole in his brain tissue, due to a surgically removed brain tumour. His legal team have argued lethal injection could result in excessively painful seizures.
Citing Johnson’s medical issues, his lawyers have stated how death by lethal injection would therefore violate the constitutional protection against ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
If their appeal proves successful, Johnson will instead be killed by lethal gas, an execution method whereby nitrogen is delivered to the convicted person through either a hood or mask. This method would reportedly not result in seizures.
In 1995, Missouri-based inmate Johnson was sentenced to death for the murders of Mabel Scruggs, 57, Mary Bratcher, 46, and Fred Jones, 58, employees at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia.
The triple homicide took place on the evening of February 12, 1994 during a robbery at the convenience store. As reported by the Columbia Tribune, Johnson had been motivated to commit the robbery in a bid to purchase crack cocaine, having been a regular user.
Johnson reportedly beat the victims to death using a clawhammer. Bratcher was stabbed with a flat-head screwdriver at least ten times while Jones was shot in the face before being beaten with the claw hammer.
The store bank bag was later discovered at Johnson’s home, which had been located just across the road from the scene of the crime. It was here investigators also found Johnson’s bloodied shoes.
The murder scene was reportedly so horrific, officers initially believed victims had been shot at close range with a shotgun.
In February 1994, former deputy chief of the Columbia Police Department, Carroll Highbarger, made the following comments during an interview with the Columbia Tribune:
As massive as the wounds were and destructive as they were, we though only a shotgun could do that,
It was an absolute horrible bloody mess.
Johnson’s lawyers and The Missouri Attorney General’s Office have now filed a joint motion in federal court. This motion requests that the Western District of Missouri to stay Johnson’s case awaiting the Supreme Court’s review of a separate Missouri death row case, involving convicted murderer Russell Bucklew.
In 1998, Bucklew was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping, burglary and rape. He and his legal team have since argued how a rare disease of cavernous hemangioma means death by lethal injection would cause him ‘needless suffering’.
As reported by ABC 17, the lawyers wrote the following comments in the motion:
The stay should be granted because it is likely to preserve limited judicial resources and because the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Bucklew and Johnson will provide guidance to this Court and to the litigants on how to proceed in this case.
In the motion, the lawyers assert their plans to have the Supreme Court also take up Johnson’s case.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of execution to Russell Bucklew while considering his underlying appeal. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, Justice Alito, and Justice Gorsuch would have allowed the execution to go ahead.
— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) March 20, 2018
Under Missouri law, executions can be carried out using either lethal injection or lethal gas. However, the state does not currently have a suitable venue to carry out executions using gas, with the last such execution in the state taking place in 1965.
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