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Sanchez: Time to admit what we know about the death penalty and who receives it

Sanchez: Time to admit what we know about the death penalty and who receives it

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Mary Sanchez

Mary Sanchez

His mother began drinking as a 10-year-old.

Her prepubescent cocktail of choice was half beer and half soda. As a young teen out partying with the man who’d father her children, she drank pints of gin and whiskey.

Jean Ann Patton was an addict who drank through her pregnancy with Ernest Lee Johnson and abused sedatives too, doctors testified in depositions.

Patton reached the fourth grade. Her IQ was noted by doctors as 61. Her history of suicidal ideation, doctor’s assessments of chronic depressive neurosis, a passive aggressive personality and moderate mental retardation are also chronicled.

She died of cirrhosis and cancer in 1997. By then her son was on Missouri’s death row, found guilty of three horrifically violent murders.

Considering what happened to him in the womb, other early traumas of physical and sexual abuse, and his own addictions you might conclude that Ernest Lee Johnson never stood much of a chance.

He abused marijuana, alcohol and crack cocaine. He had depression diagnosed as dysthymia, couldn’t function as an adult, and had a similarly low IQ to his mother’s.

The family background is part of a flood of files released recently by the Missouri Attorney General’s office in response to a petition on Johnson’s behalf. The state, in a departure from the moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level, recently set Johnson’s execution for October 5.

Missouri has long been extra committed to its death penalty. It fought for years to keep the protocols of its lethal injection drugs secret, which drugs were being used and where they were purchased.

And it’s fighting to execute Johnson.

The stand is curious in a state that is also so adamantly “pro-life.”

Here is a case where what’s being argued is whether or not Johnson, 60, should be spared the death penalty because he has fetal alcohol effect, which at least one doctor agreed to as a diagnosis. Another said Johnson probably has a congenital learning disability.

Missouri is a state that believes in the rights of the unborn when it suits its purposes.

There’s nothing noble about those conflicts. It’s merely politicians as shape shifters.

The Biden administration isn’t much better right now. On July 1, it decreed a moratorium on federal executions to study the issue more.

Study it? As if we don’t already know that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime? As if we don’t already know it’s far more expensive to try such cases, as opposed to seeking a sentence of life in prison? There are examples of cases where people were executed, then later found to be innocent.

And despite those points there’s one more. Maybe it’s time for states and the Department of Justice to admit what is even more commonly known. That Johnson’s story is illustrative of who ends up in jail and on death row.

Prisons are filled with people who have generational addictions and mental health disorders. Many inmates had childhoods of sexual violence and physical abuse. And that those who are poor and Black, like Johnson, more often wind up on death row.

Johnnson’s story isn’t the type of case that gets made into a true crime podcast. It’s gory; a hammer was used and there was no forensic mystery to unravel. And neither the victims, nor Johnson led glamorous lives. They were three middle-aged workers at a Casey’s store in the middle of Missouri.

Mary Bratcher, 46, Fred Jones, 58 and Mabel Scruggs, 57 knew their killer. He had been a regular at the Columbia, Missouri store.

Most people with addictions don’t murder. The argument for Johnson is that he never planned the murders, just the robbery to buy more drugs. And that when things didn’t go as planned, locking the people in a walk-in and getting one to open the safe, the drugged-up Johnson couldn’t recalibrate, reason and back down, partly due to his congenital issues.

Executing him doesn’t bring the victims back. In respect to them, it’s not my place to question the wishes or feelings of grieving families.

My place is to question why the state and the federal government won’t quit hiding and admit what we know about addiction as an escalating way to self-medicate and drug and alcohol’s links to crime.

Let’s stop feigning ignorance when convenient and invoking rights when convenient.

Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.


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