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Missouri has executed 4 people in 2023. The most recent raises questions about the legal system

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on August 1 that Johnny Johnson's execution would not be halted. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissent.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Friday, June 30, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Johnny Johnson’s lawyers argued he was too mentally ill to understand the link between his crime and his punishment. But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, going against long-established precedent by allowing his execution to continue.

On August 1, Missouri executed 45-year-old Johnny Johnson by lethal injection at a state prison in Bonne Terre. Johnson was convicted in 2005 of the murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of six-year-old Casey Williamson in the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park in 2002.

It was the fourth execution this year in Missouri. Johnson’s lawyers argued he wasn’t mentally competent to be executed because he was severely mentally ill: he suffered from schizophrenia, had delusions and couldn’t understand the link between his crime and his death sentence.

In late July, a three-judge panel on the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals halted the execution to allow for a hearing to determine Johnson’s mental competency. But Missouri’s attorney general asked the court to reconsider. And a few days later the full court reversed that decision.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a brief, two-sentence ruling at the last minute, refusing to halt the execution or grant Johnson a hearing to determine his mental competency. The three liberal justices on the court, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented.

The court’s decision goes against decades of precedent relating to mental illness and capital punishment and sends a message to lower courts around the country, said Mark Joseph Stern, a senior writer covering the Supreme Court for Slate.

“By denying [Johnson] that, the Supreme Court has effectively overruled those precedents silently,” Stern told KCUR in an interview.

Previously, mentally ill prisoners on death row have been given the opportunity to argue that they are “insane” and therefore unfit for execution. Now, Stern said, it seems that the Supreme Court is no longer willing to grant prisoners that chance.

The following interview highlights have been edited and condensed for clarity.

On how U.S. courts have traditionally decided whether someone is “insane” and unable to be executed:

“It's basically shorthand for the proposition that they don't understand a rational connection between their crime and their punishment. So the court has held for many decades that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments to execute such a person. There was a kind of guarantee under the Eighth Amendment that if you could make a basic showing of possible insanity, that you had a right to a hearing, which could probe the extent of your mental problems and issue a ruling holding that as a matter of law, you are potentially so beyond any recognizable state of sanity, that it would be unlawful for you to be executed.”

On why the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision was unusual:

“This was really a rare use of the court's power to reverse a panel decision and to do so as quickly as it did. Usually when we deal with this situation of the full court reversing a panel decision, it's a process that takes months or years. This happened over a matter of days. And I think that was a pretty remarkable exercise of what one might call raw judicial power.”

On the Supreme Court’s approach to death penalty appeals since Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined:

“In case after case, the conservative majority has said, ‘we really do not think that we should be in the business of staying executions right before they happen, and that if you race up to us at the last minute asking for a stay, we're not going to give it to you.’”

On Sotomayor’s dissent:

“Justice Sotomayor devoted much of her dissent to saying, ‘look, this is a guy who thinks that he's sort of a mouthpiece for the devil, that Satan is using the state of Missouri to bring about the end of the world.’ So she said, ‘look, at a bare minimum, this guy at least should have been able to have his day in court.’ And by denying him that, the Supreme Court of the United States has effectively overruled those precedents silently and given lower courts the hint that, from here on out, if a lower court wants to deny a hearing to someone on death row who is insane, the Supreme Court of the United States isn't going to step in and correct them.”

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