Death row killer claims execution will be inhumane because of hole in his head

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Ernest Johnson, 61, has less than a month to live.

He will die at 6pm on November 3, strapped to a gurney in Missouri while a lethal concoction of drugs is pumped into his veins.

The murderer is set to be the seventh person executed in the US this year, but what makes his case particularly strange is the killer has fought to be executed by firing squad instead, and has been sentenced to death three times for the same crime.

In 1994, Johnson went to a convenience store and bought a bottle of beer and some cigarettes.

He returned later and asked the cashier who would be working that night.

Having bought three $20 rocks of crack cocaine from his girlfriend's 18-year-old son, he also asked to borrow a pistol from him.

Wearing a mask over his face, black tennis shoes and multiple layers of clothing, crack-addled Johnson then left the house.

Soon after he returned, splattered with blood and hid a haul of bank notes in an air vent.

A couple of hours later the police were called to the store as it was mysteriously locked. The officer saw there was blood on the door and the cash register and safe were also open.

When they entered it was a scene of horror. Inside the store's walk-in refrigerator and bathroom were the bodies of three employees who had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer. One had also been shot in the face while another had at least ten stab wounds to her left hand from a screwdriver.

It did not take long for the police to track Johnson down and in his home they found a bank bag and the stolen money.

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At his trial, the defence argued Johnson had such a low IQ he was effectively mentally impaired but he was sentenced to die. When the US Supreme Court ruled executing the mentally ill was unconstitutionally cruel, a new sentencing hearing was upheld which again ruled he was well enough to die. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected that sentence, and so a third trail was held.

In 2008 Johnson became ill with a brain tumour which required surgery.

His defence team then argued that a small hole left in his head could lead to him having seizures and suffering pain from the execution drugs and suggested he could be killed by nitrogen gas instead.

When this was refused, they asked for a firing squad to kill him instead, again with no success.

A new flurry of last-minute appeals will be launched before his date with destiny next month, but his victim's families have little sympathy with his case, or fears he could feel pain as he is put to death.

Rob Bratcher, whose mother was one of Johnson's victims, said: "I don't have a whole lot of sympathy when someone beats their victims to death with a hammer. He drove a screwdriver into her hand 10 times. I don't want to sound inhumane, but if there's any pain, so be it."

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Those executed already in the USA this year include:

  • Lisa Marie Montgomery, who strangled a pregnant woman and then cut her baby from her body to claim it as her own
  • Dustin Higgs, ordered a friend to shoot three women after a row at a party. While he never pulled the trigger he was found guilty of the crime along with the shooter.
  • Quinton Jones, who beat his 83-year-old aunt to death with a baseball bat after she refused to give him money for drugs
  • John William Hummel, who stabbed his pregnant wife more than 30 times and then also murdered his daughter and his father-in-law with a baseball bat because he wanted to run away with another woman.
  • Courts
  • Crime
  • Death Row

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