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Death-row convict takes case to Missouri Supreme Court

Tuesday, December 7, 2010 | 6:39 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Attorneys discussed the mental capacities of Ernest Lee Johnson before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday in an appeal his three death sentences.

Johnson was sentenced to die for each of the three murders he committed in a Casey’s General Store in Columbia in February 1994. He has twice won new sentencing trials, but both those juries also recommended the death penalty.

Johnson's new defense team now is appealing his sentences again, arguing that his lawyers last time around did a poor job of attempting to prove that he was mentally disabled and that executing him would be cruel and unusual punishment.

A main point of argument in Tuesday’s case was whether expert witness Denis Keyes was either qualified or prepared for his review of a psychologist’s evaluation of Johnson, which was performed for the state in 2004.

The psychologist, Gerald Heisler, had elicited statements from Johnson that suggested he acted alone in committing the murders, which the state presented as evidence that he was not mentally disabled. Although Johnson's scores on IQ tests administered by Heisler were quite low, Heisler told the court that he believed Johnson did poorly on purpose.

Keyes, who held a doctorate in special education and a master’s degree in school psychology, was neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist and therefore was unqualified to testify, Assistant Public Defender William Swift argued. In 2005, Keyes felt he had insufficient time to review Heisler’s report before testifying at trial, according to court documents.

Swift argued that, even setting the Keyes issue aside, Johnson had a background of limited mental capacity, thus making the death penalty too harsh. He cited IQ tests from Johnson’s childhood as evidence.

Swift’s argument regarding those low IQ scores was twofold: First, Swift argued, Johnson had no motivation as a child to intentionally do poorly on the IQ tests because he wouldn't have been preconceiving murders he would commit more than 20 years later. Second, the fact that the tests were conducted in the first place illustrated educators’ concern about Johnson’s struggles in school and indicated he might have had psychological issues that extended beyond the classroom.

Assistant Attorney General Evan Buchheim asked the court to deny the appeal, saying the state had done everything it needed to show that Johnson was of sufficient mental capacity to make the death sentence just.

Buchheim said in his statement that he didn’t think there was evidence of Johnson’s mental disability before the age of 18. He also said that there was no evidence in previous records to explain how Keyes was unprepared for trial.

Judge Laura Denvir Stith asked Swift whether Johnson's previous attorneys should have looked for replacement experts who held the credentials that Keyes did not.

“This is not about shopping for experts,” Swift said. It’s about finding someone who’s qualified.

The court took the case under review. A summary of the oral arguments, as well as audio of the proceedings, can be found online.


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