By Christopher Wells
Writing “as the personal representative” of Pope Francis and “in the Holy Father’s name", the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, has asked Missouri governor Michael Parson “to halt the planned execution” of Ernest Johnson “and grant him some appropriate form of clemency.”
Ernest Johnson murdered three people at a convenience store in Columbia, Missouri, in 1994 during a botched robbery. Johnson was sentenced to death for a third time in 2006, after two previous death sentences had been overturned on appeal.
Earlier this week, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected Johnson’s argument that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled. The Court likewise rejected Johnson’s request that the sentence be carried out by firing squad rather than lethal injection – Johnson had argued that the drug used in executions would cause painful seizures.
In his letter, Archbishop Pierre says the appeal for clemency is not based “on the facts and circumstances of his crimes,” asking rhetorically, “Who could not argue that grave crimes such as his deserve grave punishments?”
Nor, he adds, is the plea “based solely upon Mr Johnson’s doubtful intellectual capacity.”
Instead, Archbishop Pierre writes, “His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”
The Nuncio invites Governor Parson to consider that, “when all violence of all types is restrained, even the violence of legal execution, all of society benefits.” And he recalls Pope Francis’ warning, in Fratelli tutti, not to allow “the atrocity of their crimes to feed a desire for vengeance” but to seek instead to heal the wounds that have been inflicted.
Noting Missouri’s “courageous stands in support of the dignity of life” – for which he expresses gratitude – Archbishop Pierre says that rejecting the death penalty in this case “would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life.” He again quotes Pope Francis, who has observed that “if I do not deny the dignity of the worst criminals, I will not deny human dignity to anyone.”
Archbishop Pierre adds, “Is not a universal recognition of our sacred human dignity the best possible defense for society against the war and violence in our world?”
Ernest Johnson is currently scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, 5 October, at 6 p.m. local time.