Many years before the state killed Ernest Lee Johnson by injecting him with a fatal dose of pentobarbital, he walked by a mural that foreshadowed his death.
The mural is in the Boone County Courthouse, on a prominent wall visible as you walk from the first floor to the courtrooms above. It was painted in 1994, the same year that Johnson, in a cocaine-fed delirium, brutally murdered Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mabel Scruggs at a Casey’s General Store in north Columbia. The next year, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death.
In my time living in Boone County, I walked by that mural numerous times not giving it much of a thought, sadly. Painted by artist Sidney Larson, who was inspired by the art of Thomas Hart Benton, it depicts some of the worst of the area’s history, including the lynching of a Black man.
In the weeks before Tuesday’s state-sanctioned killing of Johnson, who was intellectually disabled, two Boone County lawyers, retired judge Gary Oxenhandler and Rusty Antel, had been leading an effort to get the mural moved to a museum or some other location.
“I’ve been looking at the mural for 25 years. I never liked it. I never did anything about it over the years,” Oxenhandler told me. “The reason it’s wrong and it should come down is because of the venue. It’s a terrible, hateful message that it is sending to anybody going into the courthouse. Put it in a museum. Put it in a government center.”
The effort led to a public hearing before the Boone County Commission, which, on Thursday afternoon voted to remove the mural. As I started looking into the debate a couple of weeks ago, an important response to it came from my friend Traci Wilson-Kleekamp.
We met years ago during my time in Columbia and have stayed in touch. She’s a Black activist who runs a nonprofit called Race Matters, Friends. Wilson-Kleekamp agrees with the idea of moving the mural, but she hopes the effort leads to a broader discussion of racial inequities in the criminal justice system, and one that isn’t purely led by white people.
“Where have the attorneys and judges been to dismantle cash bail or the brutal inequities of the system they maintain?” Wilson-Kleekamp wrote in response to the mural controversy.
“Seriously. Justice is not blind or colorblind. Never had been. Structurally, the mural does nothing to ameliorate the injustices of the system they work in and maintain. If anything, the mural is staring back at them and shouting: ‘This picture hasn’t changed.’”
She wrote those words just a few days before Johnson became the latest Black man killed by the state of Missouri. There is no doubt that the application of the death penalty in the U.S. has been racist throughout the country’s history. It’s one of the reasons why 23 states, including Illinois and Iowa, have banned its use.
Several years ago, the American Bar Association convened bipartisan panels in several states, including Missouri, to study the death penalty. In every one of them, the reports found problems with equity in the criminal justice system that led to wide disparities in who ended up on death row.
The Missouri report inched right up to the edge of calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in the state, but instead called for a series of reforms, most of which have been ignored since the report came out in 2012.
Among the report’s criticisms was the lack of transparency in that final clemency process controlled by the governor, the last chance for somebody on death row to have their life extended, even if they spend the rest of their time on earth behind bars.
Twice in the time since Johnson’s conviction, there have been men on death row whose lives were spared by a governor. In 1999, shortly after a meeting with Pope John Paul during his visit to St. Louis, Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted the sentence of Darrell Mease, who also killed three people, to life without parole. The pope had requested mercy. Then, in 2011, with little comment as to why, Gov. Jay Nixon spared the life of Richard Clay.
Both Clay and Mease are white.
Pope Francis asked Gov. Mike Parson to spare Johnson, out of respect for his “humanity and the sacredness of life.” Parson would show no such mercy.
Missouri’s criminal justice system wasn’t blind when it turned its back on the lynchings of Black men by white mobs. It’s not blind today as racial inequities continue to plague the system, from its horrendous racial profiling statistics in traffic stops to incidents of police brutality, to its use of the death penalty.
That’s the lesson in a debate over a mural in a courthouse in the middle of Missouri. More than a quarter century after it was painted, art still imitates life.
Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.