Death penalty is used to terrorize working people

By Janet Post
November 8, 2021

Two death-row inmates were executed in October, despite vigorous court appeals challenging the death sentences imposed on Ernest Lee Johnson and Willie B. Smith on the basis they violated the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling barring execution of “people with intellectual disabilities.”

Johnson, 61, was executed Oct. 5 by an injection of pentobarbital at the Bonne Terre, Missouri, state prison. Smith, 52, was killed Oct. 21 by lethal injection at the state prison in Atmore, Alabama. Both Johnson and Smith were African American.

Johnson, the son of a sharecropper, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome because of his mother’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. While in prison, multiple IQ tests showed he had the mental capacity of a child and was reading at a primary-school level. In 2008 a fifth of his brain tissue was removed in an operation for a brain tumor.

Johnson had been convicted and sentenced to death in 2005 for the 1994 killing of a manager and two workers while robbing Casey’s General Store in Columbia, Missouri. Johnson said he was under the influence of cocaine and was stealing money for drugs.

The death penalty in the U.S. is used to terrorize and intimidate working people to defend capitalist property relations and “law and order.” The ruling capitalist families — who chew up workers’ lives in industrial “accidents,” Washington’s wars abroad, and in a medical system that assures treatment for the wealthy, leaving working people on their own — use their prisons and death chambers to maintain their domination.

In August the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson’s petition against being put to death based on his being intellectually disabled. The court also denied his request to be executed by firing squad, after his public defender, Jeremy Weis, argued that because of his brain operation pentobarbital could trigger painful seizures.

On the day of Johnson’s execution, dozens of people demonstrated outside the prison grounds, Gov. Michael Parson’s office, and the Boone County Courthouse, organized by Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “So many states are moving against the death penalty now and Missouri is one of the ones keeping this barbaric injustice going,” said demonstrator and MADP member Laird Okie.

Catholic Pope Francis also appealed to Gov. Parson against Johnson’s execution. In 2020 he issued a papal encyclical to all bishops ratifying the call for abolition of the death penalty, first put forward by Francis in 2018.

Willie B. Smith was executed after nearly 30 years on death row. He was convicted in 1991 of abducting, shooting and killing Sharma Ruth Johnson, after he used her bankcard to withdraw $80 from an ATM machine in Birmingham, Alabama.

Three hours before he was to be executed in February, as he was in the holding cell next to the death chamber, the U.S. Supreme Court postponed the execution. It ruled he had to be allowed to have his spiritual adviser with him.

This has been a growing fight in similar cases in recent months. The victory meant Smith became the first Alabama death-row inmate to have his own pastor with him during his execution.

Smith’s IQ tested between 64 and 75, and averaged out at 72. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bars government use of “cruel and unusual punishments,” the justices set an arbitrary “cutoff” for coverage under the ruling of an IQ score of 70, two points below Smith’s.

Then in a 2014 decision the Supreme Court amended the earlier ruling, finding that the use of a rigid cutoff IQ score was unconstitutional. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit refused to apply that decision to Smith, arguing he was sentenced before it was issued. It was proper to put him to death, the court said, because of that “matter of timing.”

Despite growing public opposition to the death penalty, the capitalist rulers’ death chambers remain active. The next execution — of John Marion Grant — is scheduled for Oct. 28 in Oklahoma.