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August 1, 2023

After a 6-3 SCOTUS vote to deny review, Missouri completes execution of child killer who claimed mentally incompetence

As reported in this AP piece, a "man who abducted a 6-year-old Missouri girl and beat her to death at an abandoned factory two decades ago was put to death Tuesday evening, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to block the execution over arguments he was mentally incompetent." Here is more:

Johnny Johnson, 45, received a lethal injection dose of pentobarbital at a state prison in Bonne Terre and was pronounced dead at 6:33 p.m. CDT, authorities said.  He was convicted of the July 2002 killing of Casey Williamson in the St. Louis area suburb of Valley Park.

Johnson, who had schizophrenia, expressed remorse in a brief handwritten statement released by the Department of Corrections hours before being executed.... Among those witnessing Johnson’s execution were several members of the girl’s family and the former prosecutor and police investigator who handled his case.

The U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor and two other justices dissenting, rejected a late request to stay the execution. In recent appeals, Johnson’s attorneys have said the inmate has had delusions about the devil using his death to bring about the end of the world....  Former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch called the delusions “nonsense” and said Johnson inflicted “unspeakable horrors” upon Casey. “He’s got some issues — significant issues,” McCulloch said moments before witnessing the execution. But “he knew exactly what he was doing.”...

At Johnson’s trial, defense lawyers presented testimony showing their client — an ex-convict who had been released from a state psychiatric facility six months before the crime — had stopped taking his schizophrenia medication and was acting strangely in the days before the slaying.

In June, the Missouri Supreme Court denied an appeal seeking to block the execution on arguments that Johnson’s schizophrenia prevented him from understanding the link between his crime and the punishment.  A three-judge federal appeals court panel last week temporary halted execution plans, but the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. Johnson’s attorneys then filed appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court centered around his competency to be executed.

Gov. Mike Parson on Monday denied a request to reduce Johnson’s sentence to life in prison.  The clemency petition by Johnson’s attorneys said Casey’s father, Ernie Williamson, opposed the death penalty.  But Casey’s great aunt, Della Steele, wrote an emotional plea to the governor urging the execution be carried out to “send the message that it is not okay to terrorize and murder a child.”  Steele said grief from Casey’s death led to destructive effects among other family members....

The execution was the 16th in the U.S. this year, including three previously in Missouri, five in Texas, four in Florida, two in Oklahoma and one in Alabama.

This ten-page dissent from the denial of a stay and from the denial of certiorari, authored by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson, includes these passages at its outset and end:

The Supreme Court of Missouri, over a noted dissent, denied Johnson a competency hearing because it concluded that he had not made a substantial threshold showing of insanity.  That was error.  A federal District Court then denied Johnson habeas relief.  A panel of the Eighth Circuit stayed his execution and issued a certificate of appealability (COA), which would have permitted his competency claim to be fully briefed and argued on the merits.  But the en banc Eighth Circuit, over a dissent from three judges, vacated that stay and declined to issue a COA because it concluded that no reasonable jurist could disagree with the District Court.  That too was error.  Because reasonable jurists could, did, and still debate whether the District Court should have granted habeas relief, the Eighth Circuit should have authorized an appeal.  I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, summarily vacate the order of the Eighth Circuit denying a COA, and grant Johnson’s request for a stay of execution pending appeal....

The Court today paves the way to execute a man with documented mental illness before any court meaningfully investigates his competency to be executed.  There is no moral victory in executing someone who believes Satan is killing him to bring about the end of the world.  Reasonable jurists have already disagreed on Johnson’s entitlement to habeas relief.  He deserves a hearing where a court can finally determine whether his execution violates the Eighth Amendment.  Instead, this Court rushes to finality, bypassing fundamental procedural and substantive protections.  I respectfully dissent.

August 1, 2023 at 10:33 PM | Permalink


I would note one bizarre thing about the U.S. Supreme Court's orders and opinions. They had three petitions pending: 1) the deny of state habeas relief by the Missouri Supreme Court on the competency claim; 2) the denial of a COA by the Eighth Circuit on the competency claim; and 3) the denial of a motion to recall the mandate by the Missouri Supreme Court on the competency claim. If there was an issue with the ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court, the dissenters should have wanted to grant that petition. But the denial of that petition appears to have been unanimous. The dissent was from the denial of the COA. In other words, even though all of the justices thought that the initial denial of relief did not merit habeas review under a moderately deferential standard (and only on the factual findings), three justices thought that the execution should be delayed to allow the Eighth Circuit to review the merits under a very deferential standard (on both the factual and legal findings).

Posted by: tmm | Aug 2, 2023 9:55:25 AM

tmm --

I admire you patience with the dissent, and the detail with which you examine it, but I tend to be more simple-minded about it.

The point of the dissent was ideological, not legal. It was to signal the dissenters' opposition to the death penalty without having to take the (unpopular and discredited) blanket abolitionist line. They know what they're doing and how to do it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 2, 2023 10:15:21 AM

Honestly, who cares if someone isn't competent to be executed, not that I think this guy was incompetent.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 2, 2023 10:19:43 AM

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