Just last March I wrote a blog on NeuroNotes about the execution of Cecil Clayton, a Missouri man with a Traumatic Brain Injury from a sawmill accident who later committed murder. Despite claims of unconstitutional punishment, Mr. Clayton was executed by the State of Missouri.
On November 3, 2015 the U.S. Supreme granted a stay of execution to Ernest Lee Johnson, another Missouri man, who committed a triple homicide in 1994. Mr. Johnson’s case is pending review in the 8th U.S. Circuit court to determine if his request for appeal was properly dismissed. Mr. Johnson grew up in an impoverished background and in elementary school his I.Q. was found to be 63. After his conviction his I.Q. was tested at 67, clearly Mr. Johnson has intellectual impairments. Already on Death Row in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutionally cruel to sentence a mentally disabled person to death. Yet in 2003 and again in 2006, Mr. Johnson’s sentence to die was upheld.
In 2008 Mr. Johnson underwent neurosurgery to remove a benign tumor from his brain. The operation was unable to remove the complete tumor and approximately 20% of his brain was removed in the procedure. As a result Mr. Johnson experiences seizures and has difficulty walking. Dr. Joel Zivot, who examined Mr. Johnson’s MRI, found “significant brain damage and defects that resulted from the tumor and surgical procedure”. Dr. Zivot also reported that Mr. Johnson was “at significant risk for a serious seizure from the combination of drugs in the Missouri lethal injection protocol due to his permanent and disabling neurological disease”. Missouri reports that they have carried out “18 rapid and painless executions using the one-drug method since November 2013”. A few other death row inmates, like Russell Bucklew who also has neurological problems, have fought off execution.
Mr. Johnson, although convicted of a heinous crime, has been mentally disabled since childhood and as an adult has experienced another disability related to his brain tumor and the results of surgery. NeuroNotes is concerned that Missouri continues to execute people with disabilities and urges brain injury advocates to move to help Mr. Johnson avoid execution. Unfortunately, Cecil Clayton, another man with a brain injury, was put to death by the State of Missouri. How can we continue to allow this to occur?