Supreme Court Rejects Death Row Inmate’s Petition to Be Executed by Firing Squad

May 24, 2021 Updated: May 24, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Missouri death row inmate’s petition to be executed by firing squad rather than lethal injection, after he argued that lethal injection would cause him significant pain due to his medical condition.

The inmate, Ernest Lee Johnson, argued that lethal injection might trigger an epileptic seizure that would cause him severe pain. He had sought an alternative method of execution instead of receiving a deadly dose of pentobarbital, which can cause seizures, according to studies.

Johnson, whose epilepsy is caused by a brain tumor, was sentenced to death for three murders he committed during a gas station robbery in 1994. His lawyers had argued that lethal injection would violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishments and excessive bail.

But Johnson’s bid was rejected by the high court in an unsigned order (pdf) on May 24. Liberal-leaning Justice Sonya Sotomayor dissented and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

In a dissenting opinion, Sotomayor argued that the ruling was akin to “sacrificing” the Eighth Amendment for judicial efficiency.

“The Eighth Circuit’s decision punishes Johnson for failing to anticipate significant changes in the law,” the Obama-appointed justice wrote. “Worse, it ensures that Johnson’s claim will never be heard on the merits. Missouri 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.”

Sotomayor also noted that “tumor cells, scar tissue, and [a] brain defect” have “caused Johnson to suffer from epilepsy, which produces violent, uncontrollable, and painful seizures.” She concluded, “Because this Court chooses to stand idly by, I respectfully dissent.”

Executions by firing squad, while rare in modern times, are used as a secondary option in Utah, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and now South Carolina. They haven’t been used in Missouri in more than 150 years.

On May 24, Breyer noted that firing squads are “today a highly unusual method of execution,” but he argued that Johnson was asking that the federal courts “decide between an execution that’s ‘cruel’ and one that’s ‘unusual.'”

Johnson’s case, he argued, “provides one more example of the special difficulties that the death penalty, as currently administered, creates for the just application of the law.”

Missouri now has the option to set a new date for Johnson’s execution.