Defense challenges death sentence for 1994 triple murder

Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The defense team for a Columbia man convicted of a triple murder in 1995 is appealing his death sentence on the grounds that the defendant is mentally retarded.

Ernest Lee Johnson, 48, was convicted of the February 12, 1994, murders of Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs and Fred Jones. All three were employees of the Casey's General Store located on Ballenger Lane. Johnson entered the store to rob it, but killed the employees using a gun, a screwdriver and a hammer, according to testimony from the trial.

The defense called two witnesses to testify about Johnson's mental capacity Monday in the 13th Circuit Court. Natalie Brown and Paul Connor, both mental health experts who had previously interviewed and tested Johnson, gave approximately seven hours of testimony. Johnson, wearing a black-and-white striped jumpsuit, sat in a wheelchair next to defense attorney Valerie Leftwich. Johnson had a brain tumor removed in August and now has trouble walking, Connor said.

Both witnesses Monday agreed that Johnson has partial fetal alcohol syndrome and mild mental retardation, but neither could actually diagnose him because only medical doctors can make those diagnoses. Brown is a licensed psychologist and Connor is a clinical and neurological psychologist.

Johnson's death sentence has twice been overturned — in 1998 because the Missouri Supreme Court found that Johnson’s original attorney did not call a witness to testify about Johnson's mental capacity and in 2003 because the state's high court found that it is unconstitutional to execute someone that is mentally retarded.

The death sentence was upheld in a 2008 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, however. The defense is now appealing for an amended sentence of life in prison.

The court trial will continue with more witness testimony Tuesday at the Boone County Courthouse. 13th Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton said he will give attorneys until Wednesday to wrap up their case.

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