State of Missouri v. Earnest Lee Johnson

968 S.W. 2d 686 (Mo.banc 1998)

On April 22, 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the death penalty for Earnest Lee Johnson. Johnson was convicted of beating three employees of a Columbia convenience store to death in 1994. Since Ernest Lee Johnson was convicted, the Missouri Legislature passed a law prohibiting the death penalty for people who are mentally retarded. Testimony from three experts at Johnson’s trial agreed that he has mild retardation to low-average intelligence. The jury was not allowed to hear testimony about Johnson’s possible mental retardation. The high court has upheld Johnson’s three murder convictions but is ordering a new penalty phase where capital punishment cannot be applied.

JohnsonECase Facts: At eleven o’clock, the morning of Saturday, February 12, 1994, Johnson bought a bottle of beer and a package of cigarettes at a Columbia, Missouri convenience store of which he was a frequent customer. He went to the store a second time later that day, but did not make a purchase. On one of these trips, he questioned the cashier about who would be working the next shift. The cashier told Johnson that she would be relieved at 5:00 p.m. by Mabel Scruggs and that the store would close at 11:00 p.m. Johnson left and returned a short time later, but stayed only a few minutes before leaving again. Just before the shift change at 5:00p.m., Johnson went to the store a fourth time, this time carrying a book bag over his shoulder. The cashier noticed Johnson staring at her while she deposited the money from her shift into the store safe. He did not do anything.

Johnson went to his girlfriend’s house and purchased a twenty-dollar rock of crack cocaine from his girlfriend’s eighteen-year-old son, Rodriguez Grant. Johnson left and then later returned to buy two more rocks. He asked Rodriguez to lend him the .25 caliber pistol Johnson had given to him a couple of weeks earlier in exchange for crack cocaine. Rodriguez agrees, and he and Johnson test fires the pistol in the back yard. Johnson returned the gun a while later, claiming that it did not work. Still later, Johnson retrieved the gun and left again, wearing layers of clothing, a mask over his face, and black tennis shoes. Since January of 1994, Johnson had confided to Rodriguez his plans to hold up the convenience store, locking all but one employee in the back room and having the remaining employee open the safe.

The next time Johnson returned to the house, from the direction of the convenience store, around 11:45 p.m., his face and clothes were spattered with blood. He came in through the back door and went downstairs to Rodriguez’s room. Johnson gave the pistol back to Rodriguez. Johnson then cleaned his tennis shoes, took off his clothes, put the clothes into a trash bag, and told his girlfriend’s sixteen-year-old son, Antwane Grant, to get rid of the bag. Johnson had a large amount of money sorted by denomination and he and Rodriguez counted it. Johnson then hid the money in an air vent. Rodriguez went back upstairs and soon smelled something burning. On returning downstairs, he found Johnson burning paper.

At 1:12 a.m. the following morning, a deputy sheriff responded to a call to check on the convenience store for the possibility of a disturbance involving weapons. The store lights were still on. Through the windows, the officer saw that the cash register was open and the money vault was out and in the middle of the floor. He observed blood smears on the front door lock. City police officers arrived with the keys. Upon entering, they discovered two dead bodies and a .25 caliber shell casing in the bathroom. Another body and another .25 caliber shell casing were found inside the walk-in cooler. The safe was empty.

All three victims were store employees: Mary Bratcher, age 46; Fred Jones, age 58; and Mabel Scruggs, age 57. Each victim died from head injuries that were consistent with a bloody hammer found at the scene. In addition, Mary Bratcher suffered at least ten stab wounds to her left hand consistent with a bloody flat-head screwdriver found in a field neat the store, and Fred Jones suffered a nonfatal, facial gunshot wound.