This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund as part of its inaugural series, Shadow of Death, which considers St. Louis County's use of the death penalty.
Kevin Johnson was executed at 7:40 p.m. on November 29, 2022.
A Missouri inmate who fought his death sentence up until the final hour of his life was executed by the Missouri Department of Corrections today.
Kevin Johnson, 37, died by lethal injection at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. He had been sentenced to death in 2005 for murdering Kirkwood Police Sergeant Wiliam McEntee as a teenager
Johnson declined to give a final statement through the Department of Corrections and declined to have a final meal. He died at 7:40 p.m. — 11 minutes after the lethal injection was administered.
“Tonight, the state of Missouri killed Kevin Johnson, an amazing father to his daughter Khorry, and a completely rehabilitated man,” Johnson’s attorney Shawn Nolan said in a statement. “Make no mistake about it, Missouri capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death and killed Kevin because he is Black.”
Every attempt to lessen Johnson’s sentence from death to life in prison has been denied since a St. Louis County jury first convicted him of first-degree murder in 2007. On Monday night, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled not to delay Johnson’s execution
over a special prosecutor’s claims that racial bias infected Johnson’s conviction and judgment
Johnson’s lawyers swiftly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday morning in one final attempt to delay Johnson’s execution. The court filed its denial of Johnson’s request around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night, 30 minutes after the 24-hour period for Johnson’s execution began.
Governor Mike Parson said Monday he would not grant Johnson clemency after previously calling Johnson’s crime “cold-blooded.” Parson issued a brief statement after Johnson’s execution.
“We hope that this will bring some closure to Sgt. McEntee’s loved ones who continue to anguish without him,” Parson said.
McEntee was the father of three young children. His widow spoke to reporters for the first time after the execution.
“It took 17 years of grieving and pushing forward to get to this point today,” Mary McEntee said. “This is something I hope no other family has to go through, because you truly never forget or get over it.”
McEntee sounded collected and stern as she defended her late husband, who she said did not have a jury to decide whether he should live or die.
Johnson’s was the first execution in Missouri since Carman Deck in July. It’s a rare case of Missouri executing someone for a crime they committed as a teenager. Missouri has executed only one man for a crime he committed as a teen since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 required states to rethink how they treat youthful offenders.
Johnson’s age played a major role in the push for his clemency — as did his race. Johnson, a Black man, is by far a statistical anomaly in St. Louis County’s track record of capital punishment.
Former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s won death penalty convictions against 23 men during his 28 years in office
. Fifteen were Black. Cases with white victims during McCulloch’s tenure were 3.5 times as likely to lead to a death sentence as those with Black victims, according to a recent analysis by an expert hired by Johnson’s attorneys.
The special prosecutor who investigated Johnson’s case claimed McCulloch had schemed to exclude jurors of color from the jury in Johnson’s second trial. Prosecutor E.E. Keenan’s claims are now unlikely to ever be heard in court.
Jim Salter of the Associated Press — one of two reporters approved by the Missouri Department of Corrections to witness the execution — said McCulloch was present for Johnson’s death.
“It’s been long delayed, but justice has been served,” McCulloch told Salter.
McCulloch recently told the RFT’s Ryan Krull
that he had personally witnessed two other executions — one whose case he personally handled as a line prosecutor and the other, the 2015 execution of Richard Strong, the most recent handled by his office before Johnson.
The brutality of Johnson’s crime shook the St. Louis area in 2005. At the time, Johnson was on probation for a misdemeanor assault charge and worried that two Kirkwood police officers lingering in front of his great-grandmother’s house would tow his car.
Johnson’s brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, who was born addicted to crack and lived with a congenital heart defect, suffered a seizure as the officers were asking about Johnson. Long was pronounced dead soon after.
McEntee responded to the scene around the time an ambulance arrived for Long. Though Johnson would later acknowledge McEntee had nothing to do with his brother’s death, he believed that day that McEntee had somehow been responsible. McEntee barred his mother from tending to the boy, Johnson would later testify in court.
After a “chance encounter” with McEntee two hours later, Johnson walked up to McEntee’s patrol car and shot him in the head and upper torso. He delivered the final shot moments later, after McEntee attempted to speed away but hit a tree. All told, McEntee suffered about seven gunshot wounds and was unrecognizable to people who knew him at the scene.
A prison spokeswoman estimated that 125 people crowded outside Missouri’s prison in Bonne Terre in support of Johnson (along with, she noted, one person who favored his execution). Among the pro-Johnson crowd was Rev. Darryl Gray, Johnson’s spiritual advisor who baptized him earlier this month.
Gray said he was disappointed the government failed to understand that “all human life is sacred.”
“They’re killing someone who is different than they were 19 years ago, who made a mistake at 19 years old and spiritually, mentally, and emotionally been in a period of restoration and redemption,” Gray said.
Johnson’s daughter, Khorry Ramey, was seen outside of the prison with a large group of Johnson’s supporters.
Ramey, 19, had filed a lawsuit to allow her to witness her father’s execution. Missouri law bars anyone younger than 21 from witnessing an execution, and a federal judge on Friday denied her request.
Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Tuesday that Ramey would not give any statement or interview on her father’s execution.
At least two of Johnson’s former teachers traveled to Bonne Terre for Johnson’s execution. His elementary school principal and mentor, Pamela Stanfield, served as one of Johnson’s four selected witnesses, present in the room when he was given his lethal injection.
Melissa Fuoss, who taught Johnson English in high school, stood outside the prison.
Fuoss always remembered Johnson as the student who wrote a poem about giving his baby daughter a bath. They formed a friendship after Johnson’s crime and wrote to each other frequently.
“I’m grieving [Johnson] as someone who’s become a friend to me,” Fuoss said. “But what is breaking my heart the most is the absolute injustice, the failure of our judicial system to protect and serve Kevin is only going to add pain on top of pain.”
If there is any silver lining for Johnson, Fuoss said, it’s the lasting impact he made on the people who knew him.
“He gave Khorry really strong roots, like roots of love and strength,” Fuoss said. “He fostered her dreams and that can’t be undone.”
For more on the River City Journalism Fund, which provided funding for this project and seeks to support local journalism in St. Louis, please see rcjf.org.