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Missouri Supreme Court won’t halt Kevin Johnson’s execution despite racial bias findings

Kevin Johnson, 37, is scheduled to be executed this month for the 2005 murder of Sgt. William McEntee. A father and grandfather, he doesn't want to die.
Jeremy Weis
Kevin Johnson, 37, is scheduled to be executed this month for the 2005 murder of Sgt. William McEntee. A father and grandfather, he doesn't want to die.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Monday denied motions to halt the execution of Kevin Johnson Jr. for the 2005 murder of a Kirkwood, Missouri, police officer.

The 5-2 ruling was released after 9 p.m. Monday, less than 24 hours before Johnson’s scheduled execution at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

The court’s decision came after the court heard oral arguments Monday afternoon on whether to stay the execution on the grounds Johnson's prosecution was infected with racial bias. Judge Patricia Breckenridge issued a separate dissenting opinion.

The court said it had already heard and rejected the claims of racial bias and nothing asserted by a special prosecutor appointed to examine the case “alters those claims or establishes any likelihood he would succeed on them” if the case were sent back to the trial court for a hearing.

A special prosecutor appointed last month by the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which secured Johnson’s conviction, concluded that “racist prosecution techniques infected Mr. Johnson’s conviction and death sentence.”

The special prosecutor, Kansas City attorney E.E. Keenan, said that the state had engaged in selective prosecution by seeking the death penalty against Johnson, who is Black, and three other Black defendants charged with killing police officers but not against a white defendant who had killed a police officer.

Johnson was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of 43-year-old Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee, who was white, when Johnson was 19 years old. A first trial ended with a jury deadlocked in favor of convicting Johnson of second-degree murder. A second jury convicted him and sentenced him to death in 2007.

Keenan also said he uncovered evidence that prosecutors sought to get around a seminal 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Batson vs. Kentucky, which held that, while a defendant is not entitled to have a jury completely or partially composed of people of his own race, the state can’t automatically exclude potential members of the jury because of their race.

The state pushed back during oral arguments on Monday, asserting those claims were speculative and made too late, and that appeals courts, including the Missouri Supreme Court, had repeatedly rejected arguments that Johnson had not received a fair trial.

Andrew Crane, a lawyer in the Missouri attorney general’s office, told the judges that even if all of Keenan’s claims were true, “it’s a matter of undisputed fact that Kevin Johnson is guilty of first-degree murder and that a fair jury determined he deserves the death penalty.”

McEntee was on patrol in Kirkwood’s Meacham Park neighborhood and investigating a fireworks disturbance when Johnson approached the passenger side of his vehicle, fired five shots and walked away. McEntee was able to drive off about 200 feet before his car crashed. He managed to crawl out, and Johnson shot him two more times.

Earlier that day, Johnson’s 12-year-old brother had collapsed and died of a congenital heart condition.

In her dissent, Breckenridge said that a stay of the execution was warranted under Supreme Court standards and under a newly enacted Missouri statute that provides an avenue for capital defendants who have exhausted their appeals.

Even before the court issued its decision, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued a statement Monday afternoon saying the state planned to go ahead with 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,” Parson said. “The State of Missouri will carry out Mr. Johnson’s sentence according to the Court's order and deliver justice.”

On Friday, a federal judge denied Johnson’s 19-year-old daughter’s request to be allowed to be present at her father’s execution. Khorry Ramey had argued that Missouri’s law requiring that execution witnesses be at least 21 years old was irrational, violated her First Amendment right to free association and violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Ramey was 2 years old when her father, who is now 37, was charged in the case. When Ramey was 4, her mother was murdered in front of her by her mother's ex-boyfriend, and since then Johnson has been “my only parent for almost all of my life,” she told reporters on a Zoom call on Friday.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.