COLUMBIA — A Boone County man convicted of first-degree murder has tried and failed to reverse his death sentences twice. Now, he's trying for a third time, and the Missouri Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the case Tuesday morning.
Ernest Lee Johnson's case began nearly 17 years ago. Here's a timeline:
- February 12, 1994 — Johnson, now 50, killed Fred Jones, Mary Bratcher* and Mable Scruggs, employees at Casey’s General Store at 2200 Ballenger Lane, according to court documents.
- May 1995 — Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and given death sentences on all three counts. Johnson appealed the sentences.
- 2003 — At the second penalty-phase proceeding, the Circuit Court imposed the death sentences as the jury recommended. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the sentences because of a possibility that Johnson is mentally disabled, according to court documents. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled that executing a mentally disabled murderer is unconstitutional.
- 2004 — A psychologist interviewed Johnson and examined his mental capacity. In the video of the interview, Johnson described the night of the crime, including how he killed the employees, according to a previous Missourian article.
- 2006 — The jury at the third penalty-phase proceeding viewed the 2004 video of Johnson’s interview with a psychologist. The jury recommended the death penalties again. Members said they did not see strong enough evidence to prove that Johnson was mentally disabled, according to court documents. But not all evidence about his mental state was presented.
- 2009 — A defense team appealed the sentences again in Boone County Circuit Court, arguing several instances of ineffective assistance of counsel during the most recent penalty phase trial. Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton, however, denied its motion for relief. That decision lead to this week's hearing before the Supreme Court.
Johnson's public defender, William Swift, is arguing that Johnson's previous attorneys failed to effectively present evidence of his mental state, failed to call a witness who might have testified about the possible involvement of another person in the crime and failed to object to the state's evidence and its closing argument.
In the 2009 trial, physician Richard Adler testified that Johnson had partial fetal alcohol syndrome and mild mental retardation, according to a previous Missourian article.
Swift is also arguing that the Circuit Court was wrong to give Johnson the death penalty because it is imposed at higher rates in Boone County than in other counties around the state. The chance that a convicted killer will get the death penalty is the product of a "geographic lottery," he wrote in his brief.
In the 2009 trial, David Sloss, a law professor at Santa Clara University, testified that according to his research, statistics showed a disproportionate percentage of death-eligible offenses in Boone County.