COLUMBIA — The defense team for Ernest Lee Johnson — the convicted "claw hammer killer" — said on the final day of a resentencing trial that its client received ineffective counsel, is possibly mentally retarded and might not have been the only person involved in the murders.
The three-day 13th Circuit Court proceeding took up the question of whether Johnson should receive a new sentencing trial for killing three people in 1994 at the Casey's General Store located on Ballenger Lane.
The defense is seeking life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty for Johnson.
Defense attorneys Valerie Leftwich and Pete Carter called several witnesses Wednesday suggesting Johnson could not have committed the murders alone. They also called Johnson’s former defense team — Elizabeth Carlyle and Tim Cisar — to testify as to why they did not admit into evidence certain reports and records about Johnson’s mental state during his 2006 appeal of his death sentence.
“Why did you not object?” both Leftwich and Carter said to their respective witnesses, regarding certain statements by the prosecution in the previous trial.
“I cannot tell you,” Cisar said several times in response to the question. “I do not know.”
After all of the witnesses testified, 13th Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton gave the attorneys 45 days to file their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Once the attorneys present the judge with evidence, facts and examples of law for the case, Hamilton will decide whether to grant Johnson a new sentencing trial.
The judge will have an unlimited time to make that decision, and the defense now has the burden of proof, said Stephanie Morrell, Boone County assistant prosecutor.
Johnson was sentenced to death for murdering Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs and Fred Jones at the store. His death sentence was overturned twice by the Missouri Supreme Court but upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.