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Judge denies Missouri prosecutor's request to halt execution of man who killed Kirkwood police officer

Kevin Johnson is scheduled to die by injection on Nov. 29. The 37-year-old killed Kirkwood, Missouri, Police Officer William McEntee in 2005.

KIRKWOOD, Mo. — A Missouri man who killed a police officer still faces execution later this month after a judge denied a special prosecutor's request to halt the death sentence.

Kevin Johnson is scheduled to die by injection on Nov. 29. The 37-year-old killed Kirkwood, Missouri, Police Officer William McEntee in 2005.

Last month, St. Louis Circuit Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott appointed a special prosecutor to review the case. The special prosecutor, E.E. Keenan, filed a motion Tuesday night to vacate the death sentence, stating that race played a “decisive factor” in the death sentence. Johnson is Black and the slain officer was white.

But in a ruling Wednesday, Ott denied the request. The two-sentence order didn't state why.

“We are analyzing our options and intend to appeal if we cannot obtain relief in the circuit court,” Keenan said in an email on Thursday. “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by these horrible events, particularly the family of Sgt. McEntee and the law enforcement community.”

Credit: AP
This photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Kevin Johnson. The Missouri man sentenced to death for killing a police officer in a fit of rage over his brother's death is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution planned for later this month, in part because the man was a teenager at the time of the killing. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

Keenan's court filing said 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, the file said.

“The Special Prosecutor’s investigation and motion to vacate raise serious concerns about whether Mr. Johnson received the death penalty because he is Black,” Shawn Nolan, Johnson’s attorney, said in a statement.

McCulloch does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.

Johnson’s lawyers have cited racism concerns previously. An earlier court petition stated that if not for racial comments by two white jurors at his trial, Johnson could have been convicted of second-degree murder instead of first-degree, and been spared the death penalty.

Johnson's lawyers also have 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.

The Supreme Court also is weighing a request for a stay of execution. In a response filed Wednesday, the Missouri Attorney General's Office stated there were no grounds for court intervention.

“The surviving victims of Johnson’s crimes have waited long enough for justice, and every day longer that they must wait is a day they are denied the chance to finally make peace with their loss,” the state petition stated.

McEntee, a husband and father of three, was among the police 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 next door to their grandmother’s house. 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.

Later that evening, McEntee returned to the neighborhood to check on unrelated reports of fireworks being shot off. That’s when he encountered Johnson.

Johnson pulled a gun and shot the officer. He then approached the wounded, kneeling officer and shot him again, killing him.

Even after decades, Johnson's supporters aren't giving up.

"My birthdays, he would send me cards, on holidays, he would always send me cards and say they're from him." Johnson's daughter Khorry Ramey said at a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Memories like these are the only way she's ever known her father Kevin Johnson.

"He was just doing everything he can to still be a part of my life," she said.

Michelle Smith, the co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP), has been working tirelessly to change Johnson's fate with her group.

"One teacher told us his grandma would answer her calls, so she assumed everything was fine," she said.

The group is pleading for Kevin's death sentence to instead be life in prison.

"Kevin was held completely responsible, but there was nobody else held responsible at that time, right?" she said.

They took the lead in sending Governor Mike Parson over 20,000 signatures pleading for Johnson's life. 

Smith said she believes Johnson's actions were a result of issues ignored at home, at school, and in the community.   

"Stopping, taking a moment to look at situations like these with vulnerable children, and taking a moment to actually double check they're okay," she said.

She said MADP's work doesn't stop with Johnson. The group is planning to try to abolish the death penalty at the state Capitol in January. 

"We do not believe the death penalty should be a punishment of a civilized society. We don't believe that killing someone is going to fix or redeem the death of someone else," she said.

She adds it's not fair for countless people, like his own daughter and grandson, to suffer without Johnson in their lives.

"Allowing him just to live his life, even if it's in prison, just let him live," Johnson's daughter said.

The execution would be the first of three in the coming months in Missouri. The state plans to execute convicted killers Scott McLaughlin on Jan. 3 and Leonard Taylor on Feb. 7.

Executions have become far less common in recent years. The nation's 16th execution was carried out Thursday in Oklahoma when convicted killer Richard Fairchild was put to death for killing a 3-year-old boy. Another execution was scheduled for Thursday night in Alabama. The number of executions nationally peaked at 98 in 1999.

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