Sentencing retrial starts with jury selection

Ernest Lee Johnson was sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder of three convenience store workers.
Thursday, May 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:39 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Next Friday, the 45-year-old man convicted of what police called one of the most brutal crimes in Columbia’s history will have his second chance at life in prison instead of execution.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today in Pettis County for the sentencing retrial of Ernest Lee Johnson. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1995 for the murder of Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mabel Scruggs, three employees of the Casey’s General Store at 2200 Ballenger Lane.

Although jurors will be selected in Pettis County, the trial will be held in Boone County.

For Jerry Blakey, the cousin of Fred Jones, the retrial brings back memories of what he said was a tragedy that destroyed a family.

“It just rehashes all of those old emotions and brings them back to life again,” Blakey said.

Johnson’s attorneys won a Missouri Supreme Court appeal of his sentence in 1998. The court upheld the guilty verdict but granted Johnson a new sentencing trial because his attorney failed to call an expert witness to testify that Johnson was mentally retarded.

In the 1998 penalty-phase retrial, the jury again sentenced Johnson to die.

In a 2003 appeal, The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Johnson deserved a second retrial of the penalty phase. The court ruled that the state cannot execute “mentally deficient” people, citing a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, in which the court ruled that executing people with diminished mental capacity constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane said many of the witnesses that were called in the earlier trials will be called again, but noted that this is a new trial with a new jury.

Timothy Cisar, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said he planned to use testimony from experts and people that knew Johnson as a child to show the jury that Johnson is mentally retarded.

“I don’t know that anybody in the past has presented some of the witnesses we’re presenting,” he said.

Blakey called the defense of diminished mental capacity a legal ploy by Johnson’s attorneys to mitigate his responsibility. He plans to testify at the trial and tell the jury about the devastation Johnson wreaked on his uncle’s family.

Fred Jones helped hold his family together by taking care of his 81-year-old mother, Ethel Vinson, and his twin brother, Ted Jones, who suffered a stroke in 1990, Blakey said.

“Can you imagine the devastation for an 81-year-old woman to have to adjust to having somebody taking her son’s life?” Blakey said. “They worked together, mother, and her two sons.”

Blakey said he had to take over the family’s financial responsibility and went through myriad emotions after his cousin died.

He said he spoke for himself and the family when he said he hoped Johnson would receive the death penalty.

“The gentleman that he killed was the nicest, kindest, most gentle, nonviolent, sweet person,” Blakey said. “He was known as a gentle giant. He was a big man, but he was as meek and as mild as a two-year-old child, totally trusting and believing, and to have his life taken in that manner, we don’t have any sympathy for the person who did it.”

Nate Birt contributed to this report.

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