Mental Retardation as a Bar to the Death Penalty: Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

Article excerpt

State v. Johnshon (1)


In February of 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson walked into a convenience store in Columbia, Missouri, in the middle of the night. (2) He was a frequent customer of this particular convenience store and had patronized it four times earlier that day. (3) During his fourth visit, the cashier noticed Johnson was staring at her while she deposited money into the store safe. (4) In his final visit to the store, he murdered the employees working that evening with a hammer and took less than $500. (5) Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to die for the murder of each of his three victims. (6)

Over the next ten years, Johnson, whom the media dubbed the "claw hammer killer," (7) appealed his conviction and his death sentences multiple times. (8) In the midst of Johnson's ongoing legal struggle for survival in Missouri, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Atkins v. Virginia that the imposition of a death sentence for a mentally retarded offender is unconstitutional. (9) The Atkins opinion opened a new avenue for Johnson, and on appeal his death sentences were set aside. (10) On remand, Johnson argued that he was mentally retarded. (11) The jury, in what was Johnson's third penalty phase, found that Johnson was not mentally retarded and sentenced him to die. (12) On appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, the court held that the penalty phase court did not err in placing the burden of proof upon Johnson to prove that he was mentally retarded. (13)

In holding that the execution of mentally retarded offenders is cruel and unusual punishment, (14) the instant court followed the current trend of other states. Even before the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision in Atkins, state legislatures around the country, including the Missouri legislature, had enacted laws prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders. (15) Also, the Supreme Court of Missouri's holding that a defendant bears the burden of proving his mental retardation is consistent with the position taken by the vast majority of states. (16) However, the court rendered its holding in the absence of any legislation placing the burden upon the defendant. (17) In so doing, the court was not acting in conformity with Missouri common law setting forth doctrines of statutory construction. (18) Furthermore, by not requiring that the burden of proving mental retardation be "beyond a reasonable doubt," the court arguably failed to follow precedent of the Supreme Court of the United States. (19) This Note analyzes these issues and concludes that, while the Supreme Court of Missouri's holding in the instant decision followed the trend of other state legislatures, it failed to make its decision in accordance with Missouri common law.


Ernest Lee Johnson is a veteran of Missouri's appellate system, having been before the Supreme Court of Missouri four times. (20) Johnson was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in Boone County, Missouri, on May 18, 1995. (21) At trial, the prosecution presented evidence that in February of 1994 Johnson bludgeoned to death three employees of a Columbia convenience store using a hammer, a screwdriver, and a gun. (22) The prosecution also established that Johnson had been planning to hold up this particular convenience store for weeks (23) and that Johnson's girlfriend's son helped Johnson by hiding evidence. (24)

In the subsequent penalty phase, the jury recommended the death penalty for each of the three convictions. (25) In accordance with the recommendation of the jury, the trial court sentenced Johnson to death. (26) Johnson filed a motion for post-conviction relief, (27) which the trial court overruled after an evidentiary hearing. (28) Johnson then appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri for the first time. (29) The court rejected the majority of Johnson's appeals (30) and affirmed the conviction on all three counts. …


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