By Katherine Norgard, PhD., TEP
The State of Missouri is slated to execute Ernest Lee Johnson, a 55 year old African American man with intellectual disabilities and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome on November 3, 2015.
There seems little doubt about Mr. Johnson’s guilt. He was convicted of killing three innocent, hard-working people in 1994.
Johnson has been safely confined on Missouri’s death row since he was sentenced to death in 1995. A great deal of time, resources and money have been spent reviewing Mr. Johnson’s case.
So, why does it matter now whether Mr. Johnson is executed?
Some would say, “It doesn’t.” But, it is not so simple.
The late Mother Teresa would probably say, “It does matter if we execute Mr. Johnson. His execution would diminish us all.” When visiting California’s death row, Mother Teresa is reported to have said “What you do to the least of these, you do to God.”
Clearly, Ernest Johnson is among the least of us. He has a IQ reported to be between 63-67 (with an IQ of 100 being average intelligence). Records indicate that his IQ was established at 63 when he was age 12 and he was enrolled in special education classes.
Having such a low IQ, Johnson is most likely unable to predict what might happen next or to fully understand the consequences of his behavior. He probably also has difficulty thinking in a logical or sequential manner as well as other intellectual deficiencies. He most likely requires clarification and one-to-one support to live his life.
Mother Teresa and morality aside, the law (Atkins v. Virginia (2002) and Hall v. Florida (2014) expressly prohibits the execution of people with intellectual disabilities such as Mr. Johnson’s.
There is more to the story. Mr. Johnson had further environmental strikes against him when he was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and subsequently suffered emotional and sexual abuse during his childhood.
Prominent features of FAS include an inability to effectively problem-solve, impaired ability to plan and predict consequences, difficulty self-monitoring, impaired judgment along with other disabilities related to permanent damage to the brain’s frontal cortex as a result of FAS. Often FAS causes an individual’s intellectual disability.
Mr. Johnson is not at fault for any of these issues. He was born with these major disabilities which were exacerbated during his childhood.
I can speak personally about FAS. We adopted a little boy who later committed a horrific crime (as I describe in Hard to Place: A Crime of Alcohol. Recovery Resources Press (2006) now available on Amazon.com). After he was sentenced to death in Arizona, we tracked down his birth mother and discovered that she, like Johnson’s mother, drank alcohol during her pregnancy. My son was diagnosed with FAS when he was an adult and his death sentence was overturned and changed to life in prison.
I speak as a mother and also as a psychologist who practices in Arizona. Life in prison is called for in Mr. Johnson’s case.
The question here is not about guilt or innocence, but how we as a society respond to “the least of us”. We were not there to stop Johnson’s mother from drinking while she was pregnant or to intervene in his abuse and resulting trauma. We can be there to stop Ernest Johnson’s execution and keep society safe while he lives the remainder of his life in prison.
Norgard is a licensed psychologist in Arizona who has worked with political refugees and in substance abuse treatment facilities and works to educate the public on the issue of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.