JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Supreme Court could spare a St. Louis man who’s set to be executed Tuesday night for the 2005 murder of a police officer.
Monday afternoon, less than 36 hours before Kevin Johnson is set to die by lethal injection, the state’s highest court heard arguments as to why it should halt the execution.
It was an unusual move for the Missouri Supreme Court in Monday’s hearing as attorneys, judges and the special prosecutor met virtually.
For more than a decade, Johnson has sat on death row after being convicted in 2007 for the killing of 46-year-old Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee. Johnson was 19 at the time of the murder; he’s now 37.
“There is no benefit to the public in rushing this execution forward tomorrow,” special prosecutor E.E. Keenan told the court.
“What staying this execution will do is allow the legal process to proceed and, whatever the outcome is, it will ensure the public can have confidence that if we have a process or the death penalty that is carried out equitably and in a way the public can have confidence in.”
Keenan said since he was appointed to the case last month, he has found new evidence showing that racial bias was previously used against Johnson, causing him to be sentenced to death.
“As the result of an investigation, that reviewed over 30,000 pages, contacted many witnesses and reviewed other case files, the evidence was clear that there was racial discrimination affecting this prosecution.”
During Johnson’s first trial in 2007, the jury was in a deadlock on giving him the lesser offense of second-degree murder. Months later, a new jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.
McEntee was one of the police officers sent to Johnson’s house on July 5, 2005, to serve a warrant for his arrest. Johnson was on probation for assaulting his girlfriend, and police believed he violated probation. After waking his 12-year-old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, the boy ran to his grandmother’s house next door, where he began having a seizure and collapsed.
Johnson testified at trial saying that McEntee kept his mother from entering the house to help his brother. Bam Bam died later at the hospital. Later that night, when McEntee returned to the neighborhood to check on a report of fireworks, Johnson shot McEntee, killing him.
Keenan told the judges Monday, the former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and his office handled five different cases involving the deaths of police officers. Of those cases, four of the defendants were black, all of whom McCulloch sought the death penalty for. In the one case involving a white defendant, the death penalty was not sought.
Keenan said he has asked McCulloch to speak with him, but he has refused.
“The 12 men and women that sat on Kevin Johnson’s jury were fair, they were qualified to hear the case, and they were not bias,” Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane said Monday. “Why should the court stay the execution of Kevin Johnson? The reason is, there is no reason.”
Keenan isn’t the only one asking to stay the execution, so is Johnson’s lawyer. Neither motion is challenging his guilt for the murder of McEntee, but rather bring forward their belief that racism played a role in the case.
A special prosecutor was assigned to the case after a new law passed by the Missouri General Assembly last year allowing a prosecutor to file a motion to vacate and set aside a judgement if the convicted person “may be innocent or erroneously convicted.”
Just outside the Missouri Supreme Court building before the hearing, advocates stood together, hoping this last-minute effort halts Johnson’s execution.
“I do think Kevin made a really bad mistake, he did murder someone and obviously that’s not something we support, but I don’t think murdering him back is the way to go,” Jay Castilow, 16 of Columbia, said while standing at the rally. “Him being in prison for the rest of his life is the way to go.”
Earlier this month, a petition containing more than 20,000 signatures was delivered to Gov. Mike Parson’s office asking him to grant clemency.
During the hearing, Parson released a statement saying he would not grant Johnson clemency and that the state will carry out the execution.
“Mr. Johnson has received every protection afforded by the Missouri and United States Constitutions, and Mr. Johnson’s conviction and sentence remain for his horrendous and callous crime. The State of Missouri will carry out Mr. Johnson’s sentence according to the Court’s order and deliver justice,” Parson said.
“The violent murder of any citizen, let alone a Missouri law enforcement officer, should be met only with the fullest punishment state law allows. Through Mr. Johnson’s own heinous actions, he stole the life of Sergeant McEntee and left a family grieving, a wife widowed, and children fatherless. Clemency will not be granted.”
Rev. Darryl Gray is Johnson’s spiritual advisor. He said a few weeks ago, he baptized Johnson.
“In my 40 years of ministry, I’ve baptized hundreds of people, that is one I will never forget,” Gray said. “We’re hopeful that after the court hears the arguments and asks the questions that they will ask that there will be a stay. It benefits no one to kill Kevin Johnson.”
Some who attended the rally said the Supreme Court holding this hearing so close to the execution is a sign of hope.
“There’s no hurry to kill somebody if there is some extenuated circumstances, and we believe there is,” executive director of Organization for Black Struggle Jamala Rogers said. “It’s not often Black folks feel hopeful about the same system that has set up in the first place. I’m here today to witness something historic.”
Last week, Johnson’s daughter Khorry Ramey, 19, filed a lawsuit through the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with the federal court in Kansas City to witness her father’s execution. Under state law, people under 21 are prohibited from witnessing an execution. The emergency motion said the law violates Ramey’s constitutional rights.
On Friday, the judge denied her request, saying that Ramey’s constitutional rights would not be violated by the law.
The Kirkwood Police Department did not want to comment on the case. McEntee was a 19-year veteran of the force and left behind a wife and three children.
Johnson is set to be put to death at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre.