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Pope asks Parson to halt execution of Ernest Johnson

Through a diplomatic representative, Pope Francis beseeched Gov. Mike Parson to halt the upcoming execution of Ernest Johnson. 

The letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio (a Vatican diplomat), said the pope asked Parson to consider Johnson’s “humanity and the sacredness of all human life” rather than the specifics of the case. 

“Governor Parson, the State of Missouri has taken courageous stands in support of the dignity of life, even at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. For this we are very grateful,” Pierre said. “Now, to reject the application of the death penalty in the case of Mr. Johnson, would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life.” 

Johnson, convicted of killing three people during a convenience store robbery in 1994, had about one-fifth of his brain tissue removed in 2008 to treat a brain tumor. The tumor was not fully removed, and he suffers from epilepsy and “painful seizures,” his attorneys have said. 

In August, the Missouri Supreme Court said Johnson was eligible for the death penalty and denied his request to be executed by firing squad. His execution is scheduled for Oct. 5. 

“Indeed, Pope Francis has observed that, ‘if I do not deny the human dignity of the worst criminals, I will not deny human dignity to anyone.’ Is not a universal recognition of our sacred human dignity the best possible defense for society against the war and violence in our world,” the letter said. 

Ernest Johnson — who killed three people during a robbery of a Columbia convenience store in 1994 — sought an alternative to the lethal injection of pentobarbital, arguing the drug coupled with his brain tumor would cause painful seizures.

This isn’t the first time a pope has requested a U.S. governor to stop an execution. Pope Benedict XVI asked Georgia officials to stop the execution of Troy Anthony Davis in 2007, and a representative for Francis implored then-Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to intervene in Richard Glossip’s death sentence. Glossip remains on death row in Oklahoma, but Davis was executed in 2011. 

Francis is an ardent opponent of capital punishment. In an address to Congress in 2015, the pope called for the abolishment of the death penalty. 

“There have been a number of faith leaders, including the nuncio, asking for Gov. Parson to lean on his faith and commitment to the dignity of life in reviewing Ernest Johnson’s request for clemency. We remain hopeful that the governor will seek mercy instead of vengeance today,” Elyse Max, executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP), told The Missouri Times. 

Representatives from the ACLU of Missouri, Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, and MADP gathered in the Capitol this week, delivering an estimated 25,000 signatures on a clemency petition to the governor. 

Parson said this week he is on track to render more clemency petitions than any other governor in the past 40 years. He’s granted 168 pardons, 13 commutations, and denied 1,134 requests for clemency so far, according to his office. 

There are still 2,376 pending applications, his office said.