Ernest Johnson (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on November 3, despite strong evidence that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

Johnson has shown signs of intellectual disability throughout his life: he walked and talked much later than his siblings, he was twice held back a grade in school, academic test scores placed him in the bottom 1-2% in math and reading, and his siblings say he struggled with basic skills like using a knife and fork. His IQ scores have consistently fallen around or below 70, a common IQ marker for individuals with intellectual disability. Despite all this evidence, Johnson faces execution because, in the words of former U.S. Attorney John N. Gallo, “the facts of Johnson’s disability were clouded in court by the prosecutor’s inflammatory rhetoric.”

A prosecutor argued that Johnson was not “a weak, little skinny, mentally retarded kid” and told his jury, “To decide it’s more likely true than not that this guy is mentally retarded is an insult, an insult to these victims.” The prosecutor also accused Johnson of intentionally lowering his IQ scores, based upon the opinion of a technician who lacked any training in administering IQ tests or making clinical observations about them.

In an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gallo urged Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to commute Johnson’s sentence to life without parole, saying, “to allow this execution to go forward would be to sanction a gross injustice.”

[UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court stayed Johnson’s execution, but not as a result of his intellectual disability. The Court ruled that Johnson was entitled to pursue an appeal to determine whether Missouri’s execution protocols are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual as applied to a person with Johnson’s particular medical condition. Johnson has a brain tumor, lesions, and scarring that his experts say create a substantial risk of seizures and extreme pain if executed by lethal injection with pentobarbital.]

A number of Missouri’s six executions so far this year have also raised serious legal issues. On March 17, the state executed Cecil Clayton, a man with an IQ of 71 who suffered from dementia and was missing part of his brain as a result of a sawmill accident that occurred before his crime. On April 14, it executed Andre Cole amid concerns about racial bias and his mental competency. Cole, a black man, was sentenced to death by an all-white St. Louis County jury. Richard Strong was executed on June 9 over the protests of four Supreme Court justices, who would have stayed the execution in order to hear a challenge to Missouri’s secretive lethal injection process. Strong was also severely mentally ill, but his trial counsel failed to present evidence of his mental illness to the jury.


J. Gallo, Ernest Johnson can­not be legal­ly exe­cut­ed,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 3, 2015; B. Stull, If Nothing Happens Before Tomorrow Night, Missouri Will Execute an Intellectually Disabled Man,” Huffington Post, November 22015.

See Intellectual Disability and New Voices.