Appeals court rules in favor of convicted killer Ernest Lee Johnson
ST. LOUIS - An appeals court sided with convicted killer Ernest Lee Johnson on Monday, ruling his challenge to the state's execution laws should get further consideration.
Johnson is on death row for killing three people at a Casey's gas station in Columbia with a hammer in 1994. He was scheduled to be executed in November 2015, but challenged the state's execution method in October of that year, and got a stay from the United States Supreme Court. No new execution date has been set.
Monday's ruling by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes after a series of amended challenges by Johnson and dismissals by a U.S. district court. Johnson claims the state's method of execution - lethal injection using pentobarbital - could trigger a seizure due to a brain condition. That, Johnson argued, would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the U.S. Constitution.
The district court dismissed his claim, saying he hadn't given a feasible alternative method of execution. At that point, Johnson asked for a stay of execution until he could appeal the district court's ruling, and the Supreme Court granted it.
When Johnson filed his challenge again, the court dismissed it a second time, saying he hadn't established the likelihood of pentobarbital triggering a seizure. Johnson re-filed, this time with an affidavit from a doctor, and a study proposing nitrogen-induced hypoxia as a humane alternative to lethal injection. That method, a kind of "lethal gas" execution, is lawful in Missouri,
The district court dismissed the complaint again, ruling Johnson failed to adequately show "pentobarbital was sure or very likely to cause him to suffer severe pain, and that nitrogen-induced hypoxia was a feasible and readily implemented alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce that risk."
In its ruling, the appeals court said the state's arguments against Johnson's challenge aren't enough to dismiss his complaint, and sent the case back to the district court.