Missouri death row inmate's execution can proceed after court rejects racial bias claim

A Missouri inmate convicted of ambushing and killing a St. Louis area police officer he blamed for the death of his younger brother was executed Tuesday, officials said.

Kevin Johnson, 37, was put to death by lethal injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre and died at 7:40 p.m., according to Karen Pojmann, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections. Johnson had admitted to shooting and killing Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee in 2005. Johnson was 19 at the time.

“We hope that this will bring some closure to Sgt. McEntee’s loved ones, who continue to anguish without him,” Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, said in a statement read by the state’s corrections department director.

A court-appointed special prosecutor had sought to vacate his death sentence. Edward Keenan argued in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court that Johnson’s trial was “infected” with racist prosecution techniques and that racial discrimination played a part in his receiving the death penalty.

One of Johnson’s attorneys, Shawn Nolan, said that Johnson was “a completely rehabilitated man.”

“Make no mistake about it, Missouri capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and killed Kevin because he is Black,” Nolan said in a statement.

Johnson was executed after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a stay of execution Tuesday evening. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have granted it, court records show.

The decision followed a ruling late Monday from Missouri’s highest court denying a stay of execution. Parson also announced Monday that he would not grant clemency.

“The violent murder of any citizen, let alone a Missouri law enforcement officer, should be met only with the fullest punishment state law allows,” Parson, a Republican and a former county sheriff, said in a statement. “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.”

Khorry Ramey with her father, Kevin Johnson, and her son, Kiaus.
Khorry Ramey with her father, Kevin Johnson, and her son, Kiaus.via ACLU

On July 5, 2005, police were searching for Johnson, who was on probation for assaulting his girlfriend. Police believed he had violated probation. McEntee was among the officers sent to Johnson’s home.

Johnson’s 12-year-old brother, who had a congenital heart defect, ran next door to his grandmother’s house, where he suffered a seizure. He died at the hospital. Johnson testified at trial that McEntee kept his mother from entering the house to aid his brother. According to Johnson, that same evening he encountered McEntee when he returned to his neighborhood for an unrelated call about a fireworks disturbance. Johnson shot McEntee several times and fled, according to prosecutors. He turned himself in three days later.

Keenan, the special prosecutor, told the state Supreme Court that former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office handled five cases in which defendants were charged with killing police officers during his tenure. McCulloch sought the death penalty against all four Black defendants, but did not seek death in the one case where the defendant was white, the filing said.

“The trial prosecuting attorney invited only the white defendant to submit mitigating circumstances for consideration before the prosecutor decided whether to seek the death penalty and, thereafter, the prosecutor did not seek the death penalty against the white defendant,” Keenan said, according to a separate court filing. “No similar invitations to submit mitigating evidence were extended to any of the four black defendants.”

The motion for a stay states: “Following an exhaustive review of the facts of the five cases, and a comprehensive search for internal standards, guidelines, and contemporaneous memoranda reflecting the decisions, there is simply no” discernible “legitimate case characteristics that can plausibly explain the disparate treatment.” 

Keenan also said in a filing that in statements McCulloch made to other prosecutors, he showed “a particular animosity towards young Black males like Mr. Johnson, viewing them as a population that ‘we had to deal with,’ and portraying them as stereotypical criminals.”

McCulloch could not immediately be reached for comment.

Johnson’s daughter, Khorry Ramey, 19, had sought to witness the execution, but a state law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from observing the process. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last week asking a federal court to allow her to attend her father’s planned execution but a judge ruled Friday that a state law barring her from being present because of her age was constitutional.

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