The Supreme Court placed a temporary hold November 3 on the execution of a man with severe intellectual disabilities, hours before the state of Missouri was set to execute him via lethal injunction.
In 1995, a jury convicted Ernest Lee Johnson of beating three employees to death with a screw driver, at a Casey’s General Store in Columbia, Missouri, the year before.
Johnson’s attorneys argue that the use of the death penalty against him is unconstitutional on two separate grounds.
First, they argue that the state’s use of sedative midazolam, which is used in its lethal injection procedures, would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because it “could trigger violent and uncontrollable seizures.”
In Johnson’s case, the potential for such seizures is exacerbated because he has lost about a fifth of his brain to a brain tumor, which surgeons were only able to partial remove when he underwent brain surgery in 2008.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed this argument on procedural grounds, namely that the plaintiffs had failed to “state a claim.”
The Supreme Court, in a one-page order [PDF], sent the case back to the 8th Circuit to reconsider whether Johnson’s attorneys have provided sufficient evidence for their case to proceed.
“Because petitioner’s complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim, the State was not required to submit any evidence refuting the allegations,” the Supreme Court wrote in the order. “In the currently pending appeals, the Court of Appeals will be required to decide whether petitioner’s complaint was properly dismissed for failure to state a claim or whether the case should have been permitted to progress to the summary judgment stage.”
The second argument, which was not addressed in the Supreme Court’s order, focuses specifically on Johnson’s intellectual disabilities.
In its 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. This standard, although the subject of much litigation, has generally been interpreted to prohibit the execution of people with an IQ below 70.
In elementary school, Johnson’s IQ was measured as low as 63, according to the Associated Press. Post-conviction, his IQ was measured at 67.
Johnson’s intellectual disability is the subject of a second appeal to the Supreme Court.