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Attorneys for Johnny Johnson File Competency Claim in Federal Court Highlighting Troubling Conflicts

On June 30th, attorneys fighting for clemency for Johnny Johnson filed a petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the US Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, accompanied by a motion seeking a stay of execution to allow time for an oral argument concerning Johnny Johnson's claim of incompetence to be executed on August 1st.

Johnny has lived his life with severe mental illness and cognitive impairments from a young age. Throughout the twenty-plus years he has been incarcerated; his condition has worsened, rendering him incapable of rationally comprehending the reasons for his execution. The recently filed petition argues that the Missouri Supreme Court's decision to deny Johnny's competency claim was “wholly unreasonable.”

In a disconcerting 6-1 ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court relied on the affidavit of Ashley Skaggs, a clinical psychologist employed by Centurion at the Potosi Correctional Center (PCC). However, according to the filing, Skaggs lacks the necessary qualifications to assess competence for execution. In stark contrast, the defense expert, Dr. Bushshan Agharkar, a skilled medical doctor and psychiatrist, invested over two hours in interviewing Johnny and conducting an extensive battery of tests. Skaggs, on the other hand, formed her determination of competence based on brief interactions spread over three years, which were intended solely to "check-in and assess his mental health needs," not assess competence. Most alarming is the severe ethical breach considering Skaggs's dual roles as institutional chief for mental health and a state witness supporting Johnny's execution.

Skaggs, in her capacity as the institutional chief of mental health, is a healthcare professional contracted with Centurion. This involvement gives rise to a glaring conflict of interest between providing essential healthcare services and her allegiance to an employer striving to establish Johnny's competency for execution. Undoubtedly, Johnny remains unaware of this conflict, and Skaggs's actions blatantly disregard professional standards. This is not the first time such a conflict has emerged in connection with Centurion's parent company, Centene Corporation.

In 2018, a subsidiary of Centene Corp was exposed by BuzzFeed for supplying lethal injection drugs used in Missouri executions. Following the revelation, Centene Corp promptly issued a statement pledging never to provide pharmaceutical products to states for the purpose of executions. However, what about the provision of healthcare services by providers who also act as state witnesses in the execution of individuals suffering from severe mental illness? The glaring conflict of interests cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, the petition raises serious allegations against PCC Warden David Vandergriff, claiming that he refused to timely produce medical records that would expose the conflict of interest of him and his staff, who provide medical care to Johnny while simultaneously participating in his execution. Under the Eighth Amendment, Johnny unquestionably deserves a competency hearing, a right that has been unjustly denied.

This recent legal filing sheds light on the multitude of ways in which the state and the Department of Corrections collude to deny individuals facing capital punishment their fundamental rights.

We will continue to closely monitor the developments in Johnny Johnson's case. It serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive reforms to foster fairness and adherence to professional standards within our prison legal system.

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