‘Unconditionally sorry’: Kevin Johnson, set for execution Tuesday in MO, reflects on life

Kevin Johnson is pictured with his daughter Khorry and her newborn son. (ACLU)

Kevin Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday by the state of Missouri, has spent the past week having final conversations with his loved ones, including his 19-year-old daughter.

“How do I tell my own baby girl that you’ll never hear my voice again?” Johnson wrote Monday to a Star reporter from the prison in Bonne Terre, where executions take place. “Then have to convince her to be strong and do not let this break you.”

On Nov. 21, his daughter Khorry Ramey visited him.

“I planned to give her this long endearing farewell talk but every time I looked into her eyes I just couldn’t,” Johnson said. “She means the world to me and I hate not being there for her.”

Johnson admits he killed Sgt. William McEntee, a police officer in Kirkwood, in 2005. He was 19 at the time of the fatal shooting.

“I’m 100% remorseful and I hate myself for July 5, 2005,” he wrote in a Nov. 1 email. Early Monday, he wrote that he was “unconditionally sorry for my actions.”

On Monday afternoon, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments and will consider a motion for a stay of execution which alleges that Johnson’s trial was “infected” by racist prosecution techniques.

U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and Cori Bush oppose the execution, calling it “a grave act of injustice” in a letter to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson. They noted Johnson’s age at the time of the shooting and that research shows people under 22 lack emotional maturity and impulse control. They also said Johnson’s case was “tainted by racism and misconduct,” and that he has bettered himself throughout his time in prison.

“Mr. Johnson’s cruel execution will not solve any of the systemic problems facing Missourians and people all across America, including the scourge of gun violence,” the representatives wrote. “It will simply destroy yet another family and community while using the concepts of fairness and justice as a cynical pretext.”

Trials

Johnson grew up in the Meacham Park neighborhood, outside of St. Louis. According to a clemency video, his mother struggled with addiction and his father was incarcerated for part of his childhood. He and his older brother often had to fend themselves. At times, there was nothing for the siblings to eat and Johnson recounts in the video eating cockroaches they found.

He was later physically and sexually abused.

In 1992, a younger brother was born whom Johnson grew protective of.

On July 5, 2005, police were searching for Johnson for an alleged probation violation. At the same time, his younger brother suffered a medical emergency. McEntee, a 20-year-veteran, was one of the responding officers, according to the Associated Press. Johnson’s 12-year-old brother died that day from a preexisting heart defect.

A few hours later, Johnson saw McEntee in the neighborhood and shot him several times. The husband and father of three died, the AP said. Prosecutors argued Johnson believed officers had not done enough to help his brother and shot McEntee in revenge. Johnson said he was in “severe emotional turmoil who could not factor in the reality of what I was doing.”

Johnson’s first trial ended in a hung jury, according to court documents.

A second jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Though his case is under review by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, the Missouri Supreme Court in August set Johnson’s execution date for Nov. 29.

At the request of the prosecutor’s office, a special prosecutor was appointed in Johnson’s case.

Kansas City attorney Edward Keenan reviewed more than 31,000 pages, spoke to witnesses and reviewed evidence.

A motion to vacate filed by Keenan Nov. 15 was denied in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County.

Johnson said in an email that he felt like the judge’s decision had murdered his soul.

Pam Stanfield was the principal of Westchester Elementary, which Johnson attended. He was not the type of kid who ended up in her office, Stanfield said during a phone interview on Friday. They reconnected after the shooting and have kept in touch for 17 years, writing letters and visiting in person.

Stanfield has seen him twice this month and is one of five people he has listed as a witness for the execution. During their last visit on Nov. 22, Johnson talked to her about his accommodations for the last day, including a planned visit from a pastor. He told her he wants to see his little brother.

Ramey, Johnson’s daughter, is not allowed to attend the execution. In Missouri, witnesses must be at least 21. Last week, she filed an emergency motion, arguing someone age 18 or older can be sentenced to death so she should be permitted to attend. The motion also said barring her violates equal protection laws.

“Johnson has been Ms. Ramey’s only parent since she was four years old and ‘is the most important person in her life,’” the motion said. “She is his closest living blood relative, and despite his incarceration, they have regular and close contact through visits, phone calls, and written communications. Witnessing his final moments would be both ‘a source of support for him and a necessary part of her grieving process.’”

Ramey’s mother was murdered in front of her when she was four. She recently had a son, whom Johnson got to meet in October.

On Friday, a federal judge denied Ramey’s request.

Lawyers for Johnson said Monday that they are trying to set up a visit for them on Tuesday.

November 28

In an email received by The Star on Nov. 28 and time-stamped 3:20 a.m., Johnson reflected on what may be his last days.

Things began to change for him once November hit.

“I’ve become so emotional. I was raised not to show weakness and now with all of the tears coming I feel so pathetic. I had to tell my friends that, dying is easy,” he wrote. “What I am so afraid of is leaving people behind. I don’t think my daughter, already living without her mother, is in a positive position to live without either of her birth parents. Now I have a grandson who’s growing up in the same neighborhood I grew up in and I’m sure he could benefit so much from me being alive to advise and structure him.”

Johnson was recently transferred from Potosi Correctional Center to Eastern Reception. The ride was the first in many years where he had been able to see outside, out of view of razor wired fences.

“The sight was so surreal. I never wanted the ride to end and I desired to be in the car forever but Bonne Terre is not that far from Potosi and when I finally saw the prison the fear came over me once more. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is where I m going to die!””

He said he wishes he could speak to Gov. Parson and that he takes responsibility for McEntee’s death.

“I believe true justice has been seeing its purpose by me reforming, rehabilitating and becoming an inmate who has inspired and changed the lives of other inmates,” Johnson said.

Dozens of people have written clemency letters.

Oral arguments in a motion to stay began at 1:30 p.m. before Missouri’s Supreme Court. According to the group Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, this is the first case a prosecutor has intervened to stop an execution in the state.

Keenan, the special prosecutor, told the justices that former prosecutor Robert McCulloch — whose father was killed in the line of duty — sought the death penalty in four out of five cases involving a police officer death during his career. All four of those defendants were Black. The fifth was white and Keenan alleged that defendant’s conduct “was more aggravated.”

In court documents, Keenan also said McCulloch intentionally eliminated Black jurors during Johnson’s second trial.

Andrew Crane, assistant attorney general, said “there is no reason” to stay the execution and doing so would be harmful. He also claimed the arguments laid out by Keenan would fail during future hearings, and that the jurors were qualified and unbiased.

The court went into recess shortly after 2:15 p.m. Monday. About a minute later, Gov. Parson said in a news release that he planned to carry out the sentence.

“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 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.”

The Missouri Supreme Court will presumably issue its decision on the motion to stay later Monday or early Tuesday.

Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Johnson, said the court should be concerned about the evidence of racism in the case.

“We’re very hopeful that the court’s going to rule and grant a stay,” he said.

In his email, Johnson wrote, “Redemption! Inspiration! Peace! Memorializing! Should be Missouri’s goal and if I can make it into 2023 that’s just what I’ll be trying to do!”

Execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.