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Missouri governor touts clemency actions as critiques fly over handling of high-profile cases

Missouri governor touts clemency actions as critiques fly over handling of high-profile cases

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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson visits historic sites

Gov. Mike Parson speaks to attendees during his visit at the First State Capitol State Historic Site in St. Charles, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.The governor is going around the state to visit historic Missouri sites to celebrate the bicentennial of the state. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday touted his office’s efforts to clear the state’s clemency request backlog as critiques fly over his handling of other high-profile cases.

Parson, in a news release, said he has approved more clemency applications — 181 — than any governor in the last four decades. His office also said the governor is on track to process more applications than any governor in the last 40 years.

Advocates have pushed for the processing of clemency petitions pending before the governor’s office. Parson has long said he inherited a backlog from his predecessors.

His office said Thursday that there were 2,376 pending applications, fewer than the 3,500 requests that were pending when Parson became governor in June 2018. Parson has denied many more applications than he has approved — 1,134 — giving petitioners finality to their cases rather than leaving them in limbo.

“Whether clemency is granted or denied, we are committed to — at the very least — providing answers to as many individuals that we feasibly can,” Parson said. “Clemency is an act of mercy for individuals who have redeemed themselves and demonstrated a change of lifestyle. We do not take clemency decisions lightly, and we will always practice our due diligence.”

Advocates were still pushing for action in other cases.

Faith leaders delivered petitions Wednesday to Parson’s office urging him to stop the execution of Ernest Lee Johnson, 61, who was convicted in the 1994 triple killing of 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs and 58-year-old Fred Jones in Columbia.

Johnson was convicted of committing the murders during a robbery of a Casey’s General Store, where the victims worked. All three were beaten to death with a claw hammer. Bratcher was also stabbed 10 times with a screwdriver and Jones was shot in the face.

Johnson’s attorney, Kansas City public defender Jeremy Weis, has argued Johnson “meets all statutory and clinical definitions” of intellectual disability and has an IQ that has ranged from 67 to 77. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits executing intellectually disabled people.

“We appeal to the governor to look at the facts,” the Rev. Darryl Gray, of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, said.

Parson has not addressed Johnson’s execution, which is scheduled for Tuesday at the Bonne Terre state prison.

According to the Twitter account @JusticeforPatty, the governor has also not taken action in the case of Patty Prewitt, 72, who is serving a life sentence at the Chillicothe Correctional Center after being convicted of murdering her husband, Bill Prewitt.

According to a brief sent to the governor’s office, Prewitt maintains her innocence after serving more than three decades in prison. Her attorneys say her conviction was flawed, including the use of a discredited forensic expert and a failure to pursue leads to corroborate Prewitt’s account.

John Ammann, a professor emeritus of law at St. Louis University working with the Community Coalition for Clemency, said the group hasn’t heard word on about a dozen clemency petitions the group has highlighted, including Prewitt’s case.

“We’re still waiting,” Ammann said. “We are encouraged and have been encouraged that he has a regular process for issuing clemency decisions.”

Parson has also said he isn’t convinced of the innocence of Kevin Strickland, whom Jackson County prosecutors believe was wrongly convicted in the 1978 triple killing of 22-year-old Sherrie Black, 21-year-old Larry Ingram and 20-year-old John Walker.

Without action from Parson, Jackson County prosecutors are using a new state law Parson signed in an effort to free Strickland.

Another high-profile case involves Lamar Johnson, who maintains he was wrongly convicted in the 1994 killing of Marcus Boyd, 25. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner and the Midwest Innocence Project lost a bid to secure a new trial for Johnson early this year.

Parson has also received criticism for clemency requests he has granted.

He pardoned St. Louis attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey after they pleaded guilty this year to charges stemming from a 2020 incident outside their Central West End mansion, in which they waved firearms at racial justice protesters.

The couple rocketed to fame among Republicans, and Mark McCloskey is now running for U.S. Senate. The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing whether to suspend the couple’s law licenses.

“It is peak irony to see Governor Parson use his legal powers to protect white people of privilege and means who admitted they broke the law by endangering Black protestors who feel the law does not adequately protect them,” Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said in August after the McCloskey pardons.

“Meanwhile, innocent Black Missourians like Kevin Strickland, Lamar Johnson, and countless others sit in prison for crimes all relevant parties say they did not commit,” she said.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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