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'Shadow of Death': A series looking at St. Louis and the death penalty

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 92 Missourians have been put to death. Thirty-five have been Black, 56 white and one Native American. They’ve come from across the state — from tiny Maries County (population 8,432) to Kansas City and St. Louis.

But no county has sent more people to the executioner than St. Louis County. Eighteen men sentenced through the county circuit since 1976 have been given the ultimate punishment. Another six people currently sit on death row.

In recent months, Attorney General Eric Schmitt moved for three of those six to get execution dates, and the Missouri Supreme Court has complied. Barring a last-minute reprieve, the first, Kevin Johnson, is scheduled to dieon Tuesday, November 29. He will be the first man from the St. Louis metro area to be executed in more than seven years.

Things have changed in the 15 years since Johnson was sentenced to die for killing a police officer. St. Louis has publicly grappled with its history of racially charged policing — and the complicated legacy of places like Johnson’s hometown, Meacham Park, an historically Black enclave annexed by a predominantly white suburb when Johnson was a toddler.

The U.S. Supreme Court also now acknowledges that teens, like Johnson was at the time of his crime, have brains that aren’t fully developed, and deserve more chances at rehabilitation than adults who commit similar crimes. Major advances in DNA technology have also shown that many on death row are innocent. Across the U.S., 190 have been fully exonerated.

Many people sentenced to death are guilty of heinous crimes. But Gallup polling shows steadily dropping support for capital punishment since the 1990s, and St. Louis seems to have undergone a similar shift. More than two decades after St. Louis city moved away from routinely seeking the death penalty in the most serious cases, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney now has a similar reticence. Elected as a reformer, Wesley Bell has called the death penalty “ineffective, racially biased, hypocritical and inhumane.”

Yet electing Bell didn’t change the outcome for 23 people, 15 Black, whom Bell’s predecessor, Bob McCulloch, put on death row. At the time he left office, ten had already been executed, one had died of natural causes and another half-dozen had seen their sentences reversed by higher courts. That leaves six people McCulloch put on death row who still await their fate.

Beginning this week, thanks to the support of the River City Journalism Fund, we’ll look at some of their stories, the decisions made by McCulloch and the six locals now in the shadow of death.

Kevin Johnson's death row interview, with RFT's Monica Obradovic and Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.