Supreme Court Denies Request for Firing Squad by Death Row Inmate

The Supreme Court Monday ruled in 6-3 votes against the request of a Missouri death row inmate suffering from a brain tumor, seeking to have his execution carried out by firing squad. The inmate, Ernest Johnson, fears the state’s lethal injection protocol would likely result in excruciating seizures.

Ernest Johnson is suffering from a tumor that gives him seizures. His condition would be exacerbated if he will be executed by the injection of pentobarbital, a class of drugs known to produce seizures, his lawyers argued.

According to court records, Johnson was convicted of robbing a gas station and killing three clerks 27 years ago. “He bludgeoned their heads with a claw hammer, shot one clerk in the face, and stabbed another at least ten times with a screwdriver,” the state said.

Initially, Johnson requested to be executed by nitrogen gas and not by the drug pentobarbital. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that a state could decline to use nitrogen gas as a method of execution because it lacked a “track record of successful use.” In that decision, the court said an inmate could look to other well-established methods of execution in other states.

Johnson, after that opinion, sought to amend his complaint, arguing that he should be able to request a firing squad.

The Supreme Court has broadly upheld death by lethal injection. Still, the justices have different stances down along ideological lines when looking at specific challenges by inmates with unusual health conditions.

Earlier this month, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina signed a law allowing a death row inmate to choose execution by firing squad or the electric chair, in the unavailability of lethal injection drugs. South Carolina is now the fourth state to allow executions by firing squad and Utah, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

“Missouri,” Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion, “is now free to execute Johnson in a manner that, at this stage of the litigation, we must assume will be akin to torture given his unique medical condition.”