The Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, writing on behalf of Pope Francis, sent a letter Sept. 27 to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson requesting clemency for Ernest Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed Oct. 5.
The request is not based on the facts and circumstances of his crime nor claims of his intellectual capacity, Archbishop Christophe Pierre wrote. One cannot argue that grave crimes deserve grave punishments, the letter stated.
Instead, he explained, Pope Francis “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”
Johnson was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in the 1994 deaths of Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones, employees of a Casey’s convenience store in Columbia, Missouri.
Johnson’s attorneys claim he was denied his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, in that his rights were violated by imposing a sentence of death on a defendant with intellectual disability contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Atkins v. Virginia.
The letter to Parson referred to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter, “Fratelli Tutti,” in which he wrote: “Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted.”
Missouri Catholic Conference staff urged Johnson’s lawyer to contact the apostolic nuncio. It’s the second time the staff recalls of a letter being sent on behalf of Pope Francis in a Missouri case.
A previous papal plea for clemency for a Missouri death-row inmate in a highly reported case was successful. Processing out of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis after the Liturgy of Vespers on Jan. 27, 1999, during a papal visit, St. John Paul II personally appealed to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, whose execution had been delayed so as not to coincide with the pontiff’s visit to St. Louis.
Though not official until the next morning, Carnahan’s decision to commute Mease’s death sentence to life in prison may been have made in that moment, as he told Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop Richard Stika several months later in a dinner at the archbishop’s residence.
A rally was held for Johnson Sept. 29 at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. The rally, hosted by Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was called to publicly ask the governor for mercy for Johnson. Ten speakers reflected on Johnson’s intellectual disability, his poor upbringing, the racial disparity in his case and the need for people to stand up and protest the execution.
Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference discussed a clemency application submitted by civic and religious leaders in the state and the importance of mercy in the case. She also referred to the apostolic nuncio’s letter citing the sacredness of all human life. The letter stated that Missouri has taken courageous stands for the dignity of life in its earliest and most vulnerable stage and “now would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life.”