On Tuesday (August 1), Missouri plans to execute Johnny Johnson after he was initially granted a stay from a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on July 25. This would have resulted in an evidentiary hearing in September to thoroughly examine evidence that he is not competent to be killed by the state. But after Missouri’s attorneys appealed to the larger bench, a 7-3 decision from the same court overturned the stay.
Johnson is so severely mentally ill that he believes Satan is using the state of Missouri to kill him and bring about the end of the world. Dr. Angeline Stanislaus, M.D., and Dr. Alwyn Whitehead, PsyD, spent nearly two decades treating Johnson within the Missouri Department of Corrections and say there is no doubt of his diagnosis of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. He regularly experiences psychotic breaks that leave him seeing hallucinations and hearing voices. He comes from a family with an extensive history of mental illness and suffered extensive physical and sexual abuse as a child.
Johnson was convicted of the attempted rape and murder of 6-year-old Casey Williamson in 2002 while in the midst of a psychotic break.
Judge Jane Kelly of the Eighth Circuit wrote in her dissent to the decision to vacate the stay of execution that “if Johnson lacks a ‘rational understanding’ of the reason for his execution, he is not competent to be executed. Any proceedings necessary to make this determination do not have to be prolonged, but they will take time to allow the decision maker to gather and assess all the information relevant to that determination. The Constitution requires no less.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional for the state to kill someone with intellectual disabilities because doing so would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, there is no such categorical ban on executing people with severe mental illness. Some states have enacted such prohibitions, but Missouri is not one of them.
The only options left to keep Johnson alive are intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court or Missouri Gov. Mike Parson commuting his sentence to life in prison. Those appealing to Gov. Parson, who has overseen the executions of eight people during his time in office and never granted clemency, range from the Vatican to local Quakers.
A letter from the Vatican Nuncio states that “Mr. Johnson has indeed forfeited his liberty by his criminal conduct, but he has not forfeited his humanity.” And the Penn Valley Friends Meeting from Kansas City, Missouri added their voice for clemency, arguing, “As Christians, we are called to speak out and defend for the poor and vulnerable. The severely mentally ill are one such vulnerable and stigmatized population. It would be unchristian of us to prioritize judgment over mercy.”
The Federal Public Defenders office for the Western District of Missouri also noted in their clemency petition that “the Honorable Governor’s use of his mercy power to halt this unnecessary execution is appropriate and is wholly consistent with Christian principles.”
“Under the Christian faith, every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and service. Only God knows with certainty whom he can use for this service. The unnecessary taking of a life usurps God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if that person is already saved, for that person’s future service in the Kingdom of God,” they added.
The father of Casey Williamson also does not want to see Johnson put to death.
Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty organized a gathering at the Capitol Rotunda in Jefferson City last week to hand deliver a clemency petition signed by thousands of Missourians. Speaking at the gathering was Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, who declared, “State-sanctioned murder is fundamentally wrong, morally bankrupt, and not proven to have any redeeming qualities. But they won’t even follow the system and literally throw it in the face of the people. How can you argue that people that think they’re vampires shouldn’t have a competency hearing?”
Brian Kaylor, president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way, also spoke at the rally in the Capitol.
“The guilt of Johnny Johnson is not in question. The incompetency of Johnny Johnson is not in question,” Kaylor said. “But over the next week, what will be tested is the guilt of Gov. Parson, our courts, and the entire state of Missouri. Over the next week, what will be tested is the competency of Gov. Parson, our courts, and the entire state of Missouri. Over the next week, what will be tested is the morality of Gov. Parson, our courts, and the entire state of Missouri.”
While support for the death penalty has been waning in the United States, Missouri has been on an execution spree. The state has killed three people so far in 2023: Amber McLaughlin, Leonard “Raheem” Taylor, and Michael Tisius — putting Missouri this year only behind Texas (five) and Florida (four). Tisius was also granted a briefly stay that the Eighth Circuit then overturned.
The state of Missouri also recently moved to set an execution date for Marcellus Williams last month after dissolving a board of inquiry into his substantial innocence claims without explanation. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey has also requested an execution date for Brian Dorsey but has not yet received one. This is all happening against the backdrop of Congress potentially stripping funds from Federal Public Defenders offices across the country who represent those sentenced to death.
NOTE: Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty plans to hold vigils around the state on August 1. You can find out more about attending or contacting Gov. Parson to urge clemency here.