BONNE TERRE, Mo. — A Missouri inmate convicted of ambushing and killing a St. Louis area police officer whom he blamed for his younger brother's death was executed Tuesday.
Kevin Johnson's legal team doesn't deny that he killed Officer William McEntee in 2005 but contended in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court that he was sentenced to death in part because he is Black. But in a 5-2 ruling late Monday, the state Supreme Court denied a stay. Johnson's lawyers responded by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The State of Missouri is poised to execute Kevin Johnson tonight, not for his crimes, but because he is Black," one of his attorneys, Shawn Nolan, said in a statement.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson said Tuesday night in a statement:
“Today, the state of Missouri carried out Kevin Johnson’s sentence as ordered by the Missouri Supreme Court. Mr. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of Sgt. Bill McEntee. Mr. Johnson’s claims were reviewed by state and federal courts, and no court reversed his conviction or sentence. We hope that this will bring some closure to Sgt. McEntee’s loved ones who continue to anguish without him.”
Johnson, 37, was executed Tuesday evening at the state prison in Bonne Terre. He would be the second Missouri man put to death in 2022 and the 17th nationally.
McEntee, 43, was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb. The father of three was among the officers sent to Johnson’s home on July 5, 2005, to serve a warrant for his arrest. Johnson was on probation for assaulting his girlfriend, and police believed he had violated probation.
Johnson saw officers arrive and awoke his 12-year-old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, who ran to a house next door. Once there, the boy, who suffered from a congenital heart defect, collapsed and began having a seizure.
Johnson testified at trial that McEntee kept his mother from entering the house to aid his brother, who died a short time later at a hospital.
That same evening, McEntee returned to the neighborhood to check on unrelated reports of fireworks being shot off. A court filing from the Missouri attorney general's office said McEntee was in his car questioning three children when Johnson shot him through the open passenger-side window, striking the officer's leg, head and torso. Johnson then got into the car and took McEntee's gun.
The court filing said Johnson walked down the street and told his mother that McEntee “let my brother die” and “needs to see what it feels like to die.” Though she told him, “That's not true,” Johnson returned to the shooting scene and found McEntee alive, on his knees near the patrol car. Johnson shot McEntee in the back and in the head, killing him.
Johnson’s lawyers have previously asked the courts to intervene for other reasons, including a history of mental illness and his age — 19 — at the time of the crime. Courts have increasingly moved away from sentencing teen offenders to death since the Supreme Court in 2005 banned the execution of offenders who were younger than 18 at the time of their crime.
But a broader focus of appeals has been on alleged racial bias. In October, St. Louis Circuit Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott appointed a special prosecutor to review the case. The special prosecutor, E.E. Keenan, filed a motion earlier this month to vacate the death sentence, stating that race played a “decisive factor” in the death sentence.
Ott declined to set aside the death penalty.
Keenan told the state Supreme Court in a hearing on Monday that former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office handled five cases involving the deaths of police officers during his 28 years in office. McCulloch sought the death penalty in the four cases involving Black defendants but did not seek death in the one case where the defendant was white, Keenan said.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane responded that “a fair jury determined he deserves the death penalty.”
McCulloch does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.
Johnson's 19-year-old daughter, Khorry Ramey, had sought to witness the execution, but a state law prohibits anyone under 21 from observing the process. Courts have declined to step in on Ramey's behalf.
On the day of the execution, Missourians for the Alternatives to the Death Penalty had rallies across the state.
The day before, advocates also rallied on the steps of the Missouri Supreme Court.
One of those people was Reverend Darryl Gray.
Gray is Johnson's spiritual advisor.
Gray talked about baptizing Johnson days leading up to his execution.
"We walked into the chaplain’s office and there was a big ole tub. The guards stayed; the deputy warrant stayed. They videotaped it for the other inmates and when Kevin got in the water you can see the calmness of his body. Kevin struggled with his faith. Kevin realized a fractured faith is better than no faith at all and I believe that’s what is getting him through this," Gray said.
He said, in his 40 years of ministry and hundreds of baptisms, that's one he will never forget.
Congresswoman Cori Bush released a statement Wednesday evening that read in part:
“Kevin Johnson was a son, a father, a grandfather, and a brother who was taken too soon by inhumane capital punishment. My heart is with everyone who loved him. Between the systemic racism tainting his conviction, Governor Mike Parson’s merciless choice to deny clemency, and the Missouri Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court’s denial of a stay of execution, KJ was consistently failed by our criminal injustice system. There is no place in a humane society for state-sanctioned violence —it’s archaic, barbaric, and cold-hearted. The death penalty destroys families and communities, and its abolition is long overdue.”
For the first time since that tragic and heartbreaking day, Mary McEntee spoke out during a brief news conference after the execution.
"Bill was killed on his hands and knees in the front of strangers and people he dedicated his life to,” said sergeant McEntee’s widow.
She held back tears as she talked about the day Johnson ambushed, repeatedly shot and killed her husband, the father of her three kids, as he sat in his patrol car.
The fallen police sergeant's widow and two loved ones witnessed the execution of Johnson.
“His children were devastated that their dad was murdered being seven, ten and thirteen. They didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. It took 17 years of grieving and pushing forward to get to this point today. This is something that I hope no other family should have to go through because you truly never forget or get over,” said Mary.
Mary only read her statement and didn’t take any questions from reporters.
Four of Kevin Johnson’s family members witnessed his execution.
The U.S. saw 98 executions in 1999 but the number has dropped dramatically in recent years. Missouri already has two scheduled for early 2023. Convicted killer Scott McLaughlin is scheduled to die on Jan. 3 and convicted killer Leonard Taylor’s execution is set for Feb. 7.