Confession of Error

Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith / The Intercept
Confession of Error Kevin Johnson pictured on death row at Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center in 2022. (photo: Courtesy of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty)

A Special Prosecutor Found Kevin Johnson’s Case Was Tainted by Racism. Missouri Is About to Kill Him Anyway.

Growing up, Khorry Ramey didn’t speak to her father about the day he would be put to death. “It was too uncomfortable for me,” she said. Her dad, Kevin Johnson, was sent to Missouri’s death row in 2007, when she was only 4 years old. As a child, she went to visit him at the Potosi Correctional Center, just over an hour from St. Louis. They played Scrabble and took Polaroid photos together, which could be purchased for a dollar apiece.

When it came to Johnson’s crime, there was not much to say that Ramey didn’t already know. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that he’d killed a police officer when he was 19. It wasn’t easy, but “it wasn’t a secret,” she said. Most importantly, it did not change who Johnson was to her. As Ramey got older, they talked about the ordinary things parents discuss with their kids: school, family, and his hopes for her future.

But on New Year’s Day 2022, when Ramey was 18, Johnson called her sounding different. “He was kind of like throwing hints at me,” she said, suggesting that he might not be around for much longer. The conversation unnerved her. It seemed clear that he was trying to prepare her for an execution date.

Later that night, Ramey found out she was pregnant. She worried about disappointing her dad; with his encouragement, Ramey had graduated early from high school and was studying to become a nurse. Under her red graduation gown, she’d worn a T-shirt printed with a photo of her dad, along with her maternal grandmother and mother, who was murdered in front of Ramey just months before Johnson was convicted. “I did it for y’all,” the T-shirt read.

In late August, Ramey got a phone call from her aunt. She told Ramey that her father had received an execution date and warned her that it would be all over the news. Shortly afterward, Johnson called. “They came and got me and told me to pack all my stuff,” he told her. His execution had been set for November 29.

Ramey gave birth just two weeks later. On Facebook, she posted baby pictures of herself, her dad, and her son, whom she named Kaius. In October, she brought him to see Johnson, who was able to hold his grandson for the first time. “That was a very special moment,” Ramey said.

Ramey spoke to The Intercept over the phone in early November while doing a shift at the nursing home where she works. She had not discussed her father’s looming execution date with her employer, let alone taking time off to deal with it. This was one of several logistical questions she was still figuring out. Another was even more daunting. At 19, she was too young to attend the execution under Missouri law. She did not know where she would be as the state took Johnson’s life. It felt important to be at the prison. Even if her dad couldn’t see her, Ramey said, “he would at least know that I’m there with him in his final moments and he wasn’t alone.”

But as Johnson’s execution date got closer, Ramey decided that wasn’t enough. On November 21, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri to intervene and allow her to attend the execution. “My father has been the only parent for almost all of my life,” she wrote in a declaration to the court. “He is the most important person in my life. If my father were dying in the hospital, I would sit by his bed holding his hand and praying for him until his death, both as a source of support for him, and as a support for me as a necessary part of my grieving process.”

With Johnson’s execution days away, a number of legal challenges are still pending before the courts. The most pressing is whether Johnson’s conviction was unconstitutionally tainted by pervasive racism, as a special prosecutor appointed to review the case has determined; the prosecutor is now seeking to vacate Johnson’s death sentence.

In the 17 years since Johnson was sentenced to die, St. Louis County has become infamous for structural racism, most visible in its policing and prosecution practices. Johnson’s case is emblematic of these dynamics and how the death penalty has been deployed to reinforce the status quo. To Johnson’s attorney Shawn Nolan, the special prosecutor’s findings mean Johnson’s execution must not move forward. “Civilized countries don’t execute people based on the color of their skin,” Nolan said, “but that is what the state of Missouri is about to do.”

The Crime

Nineteen-year-old Kevin Johnson was at his great-grandmother’s house on July 5, 2005, when two police officers showed up, snooping around his white Ford Explorer. Johnson was on probation in connection with a domestic dispute involving his former girlfriend, the mother of his young daughter, Khorry. He had violated the terms of his probation, and the cops were looking to arrest him and perhaps tow his ride. Johnson didn’t want that to happen, and he had an idea. He gave his car keys to his little brother Joseph Long, whom everyone called Bam Bam.

Johnson and his siblings had been raised in difficult circumstances in Meacham Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood in wealthy, mostly white Kirkwood, Missouri, one of the many suburbs that sprawl west of St. Louis. Johnson’s mother was addicted to crack, and his dad was incarcerated for most of Johnson’s young life. Johnson and his siblings had been abused and neglected, at times left for days to fend for themselves. Johnson was particularly protective of 12-year-old Bam Bam, who’d been exposed to cocaine in utero and was born with a congenital heart defect that required major surgery not long after his birth.

Johnson asked Bam Bam to take the car keys next door, where his grandmother Pat Ward lived, to make it look like she owned the Explorer. Bam Bam got up and ran next door. As Johnson watched from the window, what he saw set off a chain reaction that he would forever regret. Ward came out of the house, keys in hand, Johnson later recalled, asking the cops to come quick: Bam Bam had passed out.

Johnson couldn’t see Bam Bam, but after the cops arrived at Ward’s front door, he saw one of them step over something as he made his way inside. Sirens wailed as an ambulance approached along with a third cop, Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee. Johnson’s impulse was to race next door to help, but his family told him to stay put or risk arrest. When Johnson’s mother, Jada Tatum, arrived, McEntee pushed her back, Johnson recalled, nearly knocking her off the porch. “It looked to me … like they was fighting, and I started to get mad,” Johnson later testified. “Then eventually my mom just stopped, she went into the yard and started crying.”

Nearly 20 minutes after the ambulance arrived, Johnson saw the first responders leaving with Bam Bam on a stretcher. His shirt was off, and his feet were dangling over the side.

Not long afterward, Ward returned with the news that Bam Bam was gone. An autopsy later revealed that he’d died of heart failure. Johnson was too shocked to react at first, he said. Then he became distraught, kicking the hinges off his bedroom door. If he hadn’t asked Bam Bam to take the keys, maybe this wouldn’t have happened, he thought. Why had the cops reacted so casually when Ward asked for their help? If Bam Bam had been taken to the hospital sooner, maybe he would be alive.

Johnson went outside trying to clear his head. He removed a pistol from the back of his car and put it in his pocket; if the cops came back to tow the car, he later explained, the gun could put him in even bigger trouble. As Johnson wandered around on foot, people asked him if it was true that Bam Bam had died; news spread quickly through tight-knit Meacham Park. He told his cousin that he thought the cops were responsible.

Around 7:30 p.m. McEntee was back in Meacham Park, responding to a call about someone setting off fireworks. He pulled his cruiser next to three boys, one of whom was carrying a spent firecracker. As he talked to them through the driver’s side window, Johnson walked past on the passenger’s side. He caught McEntee’s eye, and the cop smiled at him. Johnson raised his gun. “You killed my brother,” witnesses recalled him saying as he fired into the car, striking McEntee multiple times. One of the bullets tore through McEntee’s cheek and lodged in his jaw.

Although seriously wounded, McEntee was able to put the car into drive, lurching up the street before hitting a tree. Neighbors were screaming. Johnson ran into his mother, who asked him what he’d done. The cops killed Bam Bam, he told her. No, she replied, Bam Bam just died. She started crying; what about his daughter, Khorry, she pleaded. Johnson remembers taking off running to see Khorry. Cutting through a path between two houses, he found himself back by McEntee’s crashed car. The bloodied officer was kneeling on the pavement. Onlookers scattered as Johnson walked up behind McEntee and shot him in the head.

McEntee was pronounced dead shortly afterward. Johnson fled in his Explorer, passing a stream of cop cars on their way to the scene. Only then did he understand what he had done, he later testified. When he turned himself in three days later, Johnson had one request: that police first let him see his toddler, Khorry. They refused.

The Trials

McEntee’s murder was front page news in St. Louis. Kirkwood had not seen a law enforcement officer killed in over 100 years, police told the press. The 43-year-old father of three had been with the Kirkwood police since the 1980s. Outside the police department, people left flowers and balloons on the lawn.

St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said he was considering seeking the death penalty against Johnson. During his 17 years in office, McCulloch had gained a reputation for winning death sentences — and having a personal stake in punishing cop killers. He was just 12 years old when his own father was killed in the line of duty; Paul McCulloch was “one of the best known officers on the St. Louis police force,” according to a 1964 news article that lauded him as a famed canine handler whose dog had a knack for sniffing out drugs. A Black man named Eddie Glenn was convicted and sentenced to death for McCulloch’s murder. But after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty in 1972, the sentence was reduced to life.

While the headlines trumpeted a possible death sentence against Johnson, many in Meacham Park felt that the full story surrounding McEntee’s death was not being reported. Family members told a Black columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Johnson had been distraught by Bam Bam’s death in part because police had been more focused on arresting him than helping his brother. After the columnist wrote about Bam Bam’s funeral preparations, readers wrote in to say that the writer had “slandered a fallen officer” and “excused a killer.”

Johnson was tried twice, beginning in March 2007. The courtroom was packed with family members on both sides, along with a slew of police officers. In his opening statement to the jury, McCulloch acknowledged Bam Bam’s death as the precursor to McEntee’s murder. But he rejected the claim that police had failed to act quickly to help the child — or that McEntee had mistreated Tatum, Bam Bam’s mother. An EMT testified that they were attempting lifesaving measures when Tatum approached, so he asked McEntee to sit with her on the porch.

Most importantly, McCulloch rejected the notion that Johnson had acted impulsively, without premeditation. He argued that Johnson had taken the gun from his car with the explicit intent to kill a police officer and dismissed Johnson’s claim that he had been en route to see his daughter when he came upon McEntee the second time. Johnson had returned to the scene after hearing that McEntee was still alive, McCulloch said, then ruthlessly finished the job. “Each one of those shots, in and of itself, is deliberation,” he told the jury.

The testimony was graphic. McEntee’s colleagues described the horror in vivid detail; one Kirkwood police officer struggled to speak as he described kneeling down to roll McEntee over, only to see pieces of his head fall onto his lap. A cousin of Johnson’s said he vomited after witnessing McEntee get shot, prompting Johnson to call him a “pussy.”

Although most of the witnesses who knew Johnson said on cross-examination that they had never had problems with him before, McCulloch cast Johnson as a menace who would kill again if given the chance. Not only had he killed McEntee in cold blood, McCulloch said, but Johnson had also tried to murder witnesses who might testify against him.

The evidence for this claim was thin. One witness, 19-year-old Anthony Davis, who knew Johnson from the neighborhood, had agreed to testify against Johnson only after being arrested at the courthouse, where investigators for McCulloch’s office claimed that Davis was intimidating witnesses. No witnesses had complained of intimidation, yet Davis was thrown in jail and his bond was set at $100,000. On the stand at trial, Davis admitted that he was testifying in order to resolve his own legal troubles; his version of events clashed with what others said. In addition to claiming that he had seen Johnson’s family members menacing witnesses, Davis testified that Johnson had told him on the day of the murder that he was going to kill the first cop he saw. A jailhouse informant with a long rap sheet also testified at length about an elaborate plot he’d discussed with Johnson to have key witnesses killed.

It was true that several witnesses seemed reluctant to testify against Johnson. Some had given statements to police, only to back off upon taking the stand. But while McCulloch told the jury that Johnson had threatened them, it was also plausible that witnesses had felt intimidated by police. One woman who was visiting family in Meacham Park on the night of the murder testified that contrary to what she told police, she had not seen Johnson shoot McEntee. “I felt scared. I felt they was intimidating me, pressuring me,” she said.

On March 31, Johnson took the stand. He recounted how he had seen police outside the house, how McEntee had manhandled his mother, and how shocked he was to hear that his brother was dead. He remembered telling his friends that the police had not done anything to help Bam Bam. “They didn’t try to help him because they was looking for me,” he said. When he saw McEntee smile at him from inside his police car, “I flipped out, and I pulled out my gun, and I started shooting,” he said. He could not explain what he was thinking. “I was just in a trance.”

McCulloch mocked Johnson’s “trance nonsense” in his closing statement. But the defense said he was merely trying to find words to describe his tragic mistake. “What he’s talking about is acting without thinking,” defense attorney Robert Steele said.

Jurors found this position persuasive. When it came time to decide Johnson’s fate, a majority believed that he was not guilty of first-degree murder. Deliberations were contentious, according to jurors who later gave statements to Johnson’s appellate attorneys. One Black juror described a pair of white jurors who “kept loudly repeating that they couldn’t vote for 2nd degree because Kevin would get out and hunt them down.” One of them “kept yelling things about ‘your neighborhoods’ and ‘you people’” when talking to Black jurors, he said.

Another Black juror said that she had been called to speak to the trial judge after a white woman on the jury accused her of “intimidating” behavior. For all the talk of intimidation, the juror said, it was the heavy police presence that made her the most uneasy. “We were aware from the beginning of the trial that cops were going to be heavily packing the courtroom. I even had my neighbor drive me because someone warned me that cops would run my plates if I parked in the garage.”

Johnson’s retrial took place later that year. Whereas the previous jury had been evenly split between Black and white jurors, this time the jury was made up of nine white and three Black jurors.

There were other changes. McCulloch eliminated the jailhouse informant with the story about plotting to kill witnesses and added a video reenactment of the crime. He also bolstered testimony about the officers’ efforts to save Bam Bam and emphasized that McEntee had not mistreated Johnson’s mother. “Was he very deferential to her?” McCulloch asked one of the cops who responded to the scene. “Yes, he just tried to get her to go out of the house, and he was kind of holding on to her, trying to hold her up,” the cop said. “She was very upset about her son.”

McCulloch’s final witness at the retrial was St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case, who described the damage each bullet had inflicted on McEntee. Using a model skeleton, she demonstrated where the bullets had entered his body, noting that McEntee might have survived some of the most severe injuries, but there was no way to survive being shot in the head.

On November 8, 2007, the jury convicted Johnson of first-degree murder.

The sentencing phase began immediately. McCulloch called McEntee’s three siblings, who testified about the hole his death had left in their family. His sister Cathy testified that after she gave birth to a daughter with a heart problem, McEntee had helped with the baby’s tube feedings. “He was very supportive — and very supportive when I lost her,” she said.

In contrast, defense attorneys cast Johnson as an unwanted child who had never known a stable home. His grandmother described how 2-year-old Johnson used to come to her house looking for food because his mother was too incapacitated from drug abuse to properly care for him. Records from the Division of Family Services described how caseworkers found Johnson and an older brother living amid cockroaches; Johnson has since described chasing the insects for food. During his years in and out of institutions and group homes, he did not receive the therapy he needed to overcome the trauma of his early life. A psychiatrist who evaluated Johnson said he had attempted suicide when he was 14.

McCulloch accused the defense of weaponizing Johnson’s upbringing to deny justice to McEntee’s family and the people of Meacham Park. “They want you to think that because he had this horrible childhood that he shouldn’t be punished appropriately, that he does not deserve it,” he said. The real problem, McCulloch insisted, was that Johnson did not take advantage of the opportunities he’d been given.

Before jurors voted to sentence her client to death, defense attorney Karen Kraft suggested that there was more to the case than they had seen. A defense witness had testified about being pulled over by McEntee multiple times while living in Meacham Park. Although he seemed reluctant to go into detail, he described how McEntee had screamed at him after ordering him out of his car. Kraft said she thought “long and hard” about whether to call this witness. “I don’t like speaking ill of the dead,” she said. But “there may be a side of Sergeant McEntee that his family didn’t see. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Meacham Park

Johnson had been on death row for seven years when McCulloch’s name exploded onto the national stage in the wake of a different killing in St. Louis County. In 2014, a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown. The shooting in Ferguson sparked mass protests and added the call “Hands up, don’t shoot” to the lexicon of the nascent Black Lives Matter movement.

McCulloch’s handling of Wilson’s prosecution would help turn the case into an emblem of institutionalized racism and impunity for violent cops. When McCulloch announced that a grand jury had declined to indict Wilson, he added fuel to the fire by blaming the media for the protests and declaring that the grand jurors, who were mostly white, “gave up their lives” to see the inquiry to its end.

The Ferguson protests exposed long-simmering tensions over law enforcement’s treatment of Black residents in St. Louis County. While the Department of Justice ultimately declined to file federal charges against Wilson, it found that Ferguson police “routinely” violated Black residents’ constitutional rights, using their powers to unlawfully detain and arrest residents in a scheme that prioritized revenue through fines and fees over the duty to ensure public safety. The department was not diverse, failed to engage with the community, ignored complaints of police misconduct, and engaged in practices that fostered “distrust and resentment.”

Such police abuses — and the grievances they engendered — were not isolated to Ferguson. To longtime residents of St. Louis County like Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Johnson’s case can only be fully understood in the context of the community’s relationship to police. “Before there was a Ferguson,” Smith said, “there was a Meacham Park.”

Then surrounded by fields and forests, Meacham Park was established in 1892 as an unincorporated Black enclave roughly 14 miles southwest of St. Louis. The dirt streets were named after prominent people and places in Black history. Although it lacked running water and sewers, by the early 20th century, Meacham Park was thriving.

But as suburban developments proliferated, weak state law governing the establishment of new municipalities left Meacham Park vulnerable, sparking a protracted tug of war over annexation by wealthy, white Kirkwood. Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa who has written about race and inequality in St. Louis County, described how municipal boundary-making was used as a tool of segregation. “You fragment local citizenship in such a way that some people get surveilled by the state and some people get served by the state,” Gordon said.

In the late 1950s, Kirkwood made its first land grab, annexing a valuable commercial strip of Meacham Park, for which the community got nothing in return. In 1956, Interstate 44 sliced through the community, paving over homes and leaving a wedge of the neighborhood stranded. Meanwhile, Kirkwood officials were wringing their hands: They didn’t want responsibility for providing services to Meacham Park, but they also didn’t want the area’s perceived problems coming into Kirkwood. As city leaders put it in a proposed action plan in 1966, “Mosquitoes, bred in the failing septic tanks in Meacham Park, or potential criminals, raised in an atmosphere devoid of police protection, are not respecters of municipal boundary lines.”

In 1991 the residents of Meacham Park finally agreed to an annexation plan. The promise was that commercial development along a discrete swath of its western edge would provide jobs for residents and bring in revenue needed for Kirkwood to extend services across the area. The promise was hollow: The development’s footprint ballooned, swallowing 100 homes and displacing residents for what in the end was a wall of big-box stores that only further isolated Meacham Park from the rest of Kirkwood.

In every practical sense, the first “service” to fully encompass Meacham Park was policing — or, more accurately, over-policing, which manifested itself in many of the same ways that would later be identified in Ferguson. “To be the subject of neglect and harassment simultaneously definitely set up a lot of harm in that community,” Smith said.

This dynamic was entrenched long before Johnson shot McEntee in July 2005. Court filings in Johnson’s case include affidavits from relatives and community members who described relentless police surveillance in Meacham Park. Patrol cars were omnipresent, and neighbors were hassled for minor infractions or questioned for seemingly no reason at all. In his affidavit, Dameion Pullum, a childhood friend of Johnson’s, said the cops once maced a group of kids for hanging out in a church parking lot after a high school football game and harassed Johnson’s grandmother’s husband for waxing his car in the driveway.

Several of the affidavits specifically named McEntee as contributing to the harassment. Pullum said McEntee was known as “Tackleberry” because “he was big, and he would tackle and beat people up.” Romona Miller, who was a science teacher at Kirkwood High School in 2005, told the Riverfront Times that students shared stories about “Mac” — including that he had escalated one encounter to the point that another officer had to intervene. “I had never heard the kids talk specifically about a person, so that was concerning to me,” Miller told the weekly. She said she contacted the Kirkwood police with her concerns but never heard back. “I often wonder, if that had been taken more seriously, we could have avoided a lot of this.” (A KPD spokesperson told the St. Louis Beacon that the chief had no recollection of Miller’s complaint. “He’s not saying it didn’t happen,” the spokesperson said. “We get a lot of complaints.”)

Smith stressed that reports of McEntee’s misconduct were not meant to “condone killing. We wish that McEntee was still here.” Still, she was blunt about the role he and other cops played in Meacham Park. “The reality of the situation is he was a terrorist in that community.”

Andrea Boyles, a sociology and Africana studies professor at Tulane University, interviewed Meacham Park residents about their experiences with police for her doctoral dissertation. That work later became the book “Race, Place, and Suburban Policing.”

There had been a “long-standing racial contention between Meacham Park and Kirkwood,” Boyles said, and “ultimately, there were a number of things that transpired … ranging from full loss of land and people losing their homes or being bought out, feeling like they had been manipulated” in the annexation process. Their distrust of the police was perhaps just the most visible manifestation of the disenchantment. “What they reported to me wasn’t just isolated to or told about the police, it was about the entire process, which included the city council,” she said, “and them already feeling like, in many respects, that they had been … indifferently characterized as baggage or weight or throwaways that needed to be saved by the neighboring rich white people.”

Residents told her that in the wake of violent incidents like McEntee’s killing, they felt that the whole community was being indicted, as if at fault for what happened. The “racial, spatial, political climate of that place made it ripe for people to lose in different ways,” Boyles said. “And the results of that, unfortunately, and without justifying or condoning, would be the loss of many lives. And the fact that we are now possibly facing another.”

A Cloud Over the Case

In the wake of Ferguson, voters ousted McCulloch, who had spent nearly 30 years in office, and elected a reform candidate. Former public defender and Ferguson City Council Member Wesley Bell became St. Louis County’s first Black elected prosecutor. In 2019, Bell launched a Conviction and Incident Review Unit, tasked with reviewing officer-involved shootings, allegations of police misconduct, and claims of wrongful prosecution or conviction — a deliberate departure from the status quo under McCulloch. “We know the same-old, same-old approach that we see incarcerating people based on their socio-economic stature, their zip code, their status, their race, their gender — that doesn’t work,” Bell told The Intercept at the time.

While wrongful convictions are a persistent problem within the criminal legal system, until last year, Missouri prosecutors lacked a meaningful way to revisit a conviction they believed was wrongly obtained. In 2021, state legislators passed a law intended to fix the problem; by statute, prosecutors may, “at any time,” file a motion to vacate a conviction in the court where the defendant was originally tried. The trial court is required to hold a hearing to determine if “constitutional error at the original trial … undermines the confidence in the judgment.”

In December 2021, Johnson’s lawyers asked prosecutors to review his conviction, which they argued was unconstitutionally tainted by racial bias. There was an immediate issue, however: Steele, one of Johnson’s defense attorneys at trial, now works for Bell, creating a conflict of interest. In July, Bell’s office wrote to the Missouri Supreme Court, explaining that the office was reviewing Johnson’s case and looking for a special prosecutor to head up the inquiry. Prosecutors asked the court to refrain from setting an execution date. The court disregarded the request, setting Johnson’s execution for November.

Nonetheless, in October, the St. Louis County Circuit Court appointed Kansas City attorney Edward Keenan as special prosecutor. Keenan reviewed more than 31,000 pages of documents related to the case, and in mid-November, he filed a motion with the trial court seeking to vacate Johnson’s conviction. “Unconstitutional racial discrimination infected this prosecution,” he wrote, “and this error requires the judgment to be set aside.” The murder of McEntee was “horrific,” and his family deserved justice. “Unfortunately,” McCulloch “did not pursue that justice according to law,” Keenan wrote. “The law requires this court to … order a new trial that adheres to constitutional standards.”

Among the evidence laid out in Kennan’s motion was a memo he found within the prosecution’s files that showed McCulloch’s team had schemed to eliminate Black jurors from Johnson’s second trial. And he pointed to a speech McCulloch gave to the Oregon District Attorneys Association as evidence of racial animus. A week after he lost his primary race to Bell, McCulloch spoke at the association’s summer conference, where he aired his grievances about the unrest in Ferguson and showed a seemingly random photo of a group of young Black people standing together, telling the audience, “This is what we’re dealing with.” A number of prosecutors were stunned by the presentation. “I found Mr. McCulloch’s remarks to be offensive and unprofessional,” Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill told Willamette Week. “The implication was that these kids were thugs,” Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said of the photo. “I was bothered by the implicit nature of his words.”

Perhaps most revealing is McCulloch’s history of charging decisions — an area where prosecutors have complete discretion. McCulloch prosecuted five police officer killings during his tenure. Four of them involved Black defendants; in each, McCulloch sought the death penalty. The fifth case involved a white defendant named Trenton Forster. In that case, McCulloch sought life. Forster’s conduct was far more aggravated than that of the other defendants, Keenan found. Among other things, Forster had bragged on social media about wanting to kill cops, suggesting that his attack was premeditated. Nonetheless, McCulloch took the extraordinary step of giving Forster’s public defender nearly a year to provide mitigating evidence that might convince McCulloch not to seek a death sentence. McCulloch did not offer this opportunity to any of the Black defendants.

Over the course of his career, McCulloch was far more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where the victim was white, according to a recent study by Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Baumgartner analyzed 408 death penalty-eligible murder cases from St. Louis County between 1991 and 2018 at the behest of Johnson’s legal team. He found that even after controlling for various circumstances, McCulloch’s office was 3.5 times more likely to seek death when the victim was white.

While two-thirds of victims in all eligible cases were Black, 62 percent of the cases ending in a death sentence involved white victims. Baumgartner’s analysis suggested that McCulloch set the bar higher when considering cases involving Black victims, seeking death more frequently when there were multiple victims. The same was not true where white victims were concerned, Baumgartner wrote: “A single white victim suffices.”

McCulloch did not respond to emails from The Intercept requesting comment. In a recent interview with the Riverfront Times, McCulloch defended his record and denied allegations of racially motivated prosecutions. “There’s no question that you can’t do the job that I did for as long as I did it and not have some people think that you’re a terrible person,” he said. “You just can’t do it.”

Despite Missouri’s requirement that the trial court hold a hearing on the evidence, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott denied Keenan’s motion the day after he filed it. In a subsequent order, Ott acknowledged that while capital punishment “is different from all other punishments” and “requires particular care in its application,” there was nonetheless “insufficient time” to conduct a thorough hearing before Johnson’s scheduled execution, which she said she had no power to stay.

Both Keenan and Johnson’s attorneys appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, asking it to halt the execution so that the lower court could hold a hearing on the evidence. “This court should consider the special prosecutor’s motion to vacate for what it is: the state’s confession of error,” which has not been contested, Johnson’s lawyers wrote. “The state admits long-standing and pervasive racial bias in St. Louis County’s handling of this case and other death-eligible prosecutions, including the office’s decisions of which offense to charge, which penalty to seek, and which jurors to strike.”

“Unless this court stays the execution,” Keenan wrote in his appeal, “the result in this case will forever have this cloud over it.”

The Missouri Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on November 28, the day before Johnson is set to die.

Witnessing Death

Two days before Thanksgiving, Rep. Cori Bush, who represents St. Louis, sent a letter alongside her Kansas City colleague Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. They urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to grant Johnson clemency. “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,” they wrote. “It will simply destroy yet another family and community while using the concepts of fairness and justice as a cynical pretext.”

The letter drew from Johnson’s clemency petition, which emphasized his youth at the time of the crime. In 2005, the same year that Johnson killed McEntee, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed death sentences for people who committed capital crimes before the age of 18. The ruling in Roper v. Simmons was based on scientific research revealing the extent to which the human brain develops throughout a person’s teenage years. It is now well-established that the parts of the brain guiding impulse control continue to form well into early adulthood, and that factors like poverty, abuse, and neglect profoundly impact such development. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association concluded that the prohibitions established by Roper should also apply to people between the ages of 18 and 20 — the age Johnson was in 2005.

Although Parson has not made an official announcement regarding clemency, he told reporters on November 23 that he did not intend to intervene.

Today, Johnson’s record behind bars is a testament to the way young people mature beyond their crimes. At Potosi, he is considered a “model inmate,” according to his clemency petition, which included dozens of letters from incarcerated men who described him as a mentor and role model. Among Johnson’s most vocal supporters are a group of educators who have maintained since his trial that Johnson was a good kid who committed a tragic act of violence on one of the worst days of his life. Pam Stanfield, his elementary school principal, who has grown especially close to Johnson over the years, described him as a devoted father whose relationship with Ramey “far exceeds what many fathers are able to do while living outside prison walls.”

In a phone call, Stanfield emphasized that Johnson had expressed deep remorse for killing McEntee. “He would give anything if he could go back and do something differently,” she said. “And yet he’s so much more than that.”

On the morning after Thanksgiving, Johnson’s attorneys organized a press conference to discuss Ramey’s fight to witness her father’s execution. Ramey had planned to give a statement but struggled to speak. She asked Smith, of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, to read the rest of what she’d written. “I have suffered so much loss in my life,” the statement read, recalling how Ramey had seen her mother killed when she was 4 years old. It was excruciating to think that she would not be there to see her sole surviving parent in his final moments. “If the state of Missouri thinks that my father’s actions at age 19 make him mature enough to be executed, then it makes no sense that under Missouri law an adult who is 19 is not mature enough to be present at that person’s execution.”

A federal judge rejected Ramey’s legal challenge later that evening. He found that Missouri had a valid interest in preventing teenagers from “witnessing death.” He cited a landmark Supreme Court case reining in life sentences for youth, which was rooted in the same scientific research that led to Roper in 2005. Young people “may be more inclined to act out in ways that are disruptive,” he wrote, threatening the “solemnity and decorum” of the execution.

“We are heartbroken for Khorry,” said Nolan, Johnson’s attorney. “Every aspect of this case is a tragedy, but we promise Khorry that we are not done fighting for her father.”

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