Lawyers Work to Have Death Sentence Commuted for Missouri Man Who Killed an Officer at 19

In a little over a month, the state of Missouri is slated to execute a Black man who committed a murder when he was a teenager. Advocates are opposing the execution, arguing that because of his age he should not have been sentenced so harshly.

After 17 years, the Missouri Supreme Court has set an execution date for Kevin Johnson, 36, for Tuesday, Nov. 29. Johnson is scheduled to die by lethal injection for the 2005 fatal shooting of Kirkwood Police Sgt. Bill McEntee, The Associated Press reported.

Johnson was 19 when he killed the officer.

Ever since his first trial for the sergeant’s murder, there have been passionate feelings about his sentencing. The first trial ended in a hung jury, resulting in a second trial three years after the killing where he was found guilty of first-degree murder.

However, since his conviction, laws had been changed that created a special consideration four years after his conviction for troubled teens who commit crimes. As described by the Missouri Independent, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for children has implications for Johnson’s case.

The decision acknowledged that young people are more capable of rehabilitation and are less culpable for the crimes they commit than adults. The justification behind the ruling is a young person’s brain, specifically, the part responsible for the executive function, is not fully developed until they are in their mid-20s.

Because of this fact, advocates believe it is wrong to put extreme prison sentences on children, even if they committed extremely serious crimes, even one like the murder Johnson committed on July 5, 2005.

On that day, around 5:20 p.m. officers came to Johnson’s home in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, seeking to apprehend him on a probation violation warrant. Some 10 minutes after they arrived they were checking out a vehicle they believed to be Johnson’s in front of the home when they were diverted from the search for Johnson when his 12-year-old brother collapsed in the house next door. Sgt. McEntee was among the additional officers and paramedics who responded to the emergency. The boy was transported to a hospital but shortly thereafter was pronounced dead there, succumbing to what later was determined to be a preexisting heart condition.

Johnson apparently had been near the scene when the police responded to his brother’s collapse, but the officers left without encountering him. When McEntee returned to the same community around 7:30 that evening to investigate reports of fireworks Johnson ambushed him.

During the trial, Then-St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch argued that Johnson thought the officers who responded earlier had not done enough to help his brother and shot McEntee out of revenge.

Witnesses are described in the court record as saying Johnson went to his vehicle and got his black, nine-millimeter handgun from his vehicle, and “when talking with friends that evening, Appellant explained his brother’s death as, ‘that’s f##ked up, man. They wasn’t trying to help him, that he was too busy looking for me.’” 

Others alleged Johnson yelled out, “You killed my brother,” before firing through the passenger side window of McEntee’s car.

“Sgt. McEntee was shot in the head and upper torso and one of the juveniles was hit in the leg,” court records report. “Appellant reached into the patrol car and took Sgt. McEntee’s silver .40 caliber handgun.”

“Appellant proceeded to walk down the street with the black and silver handguns. He then saw his mother and her boyfriend.  Appellant told his mother, ‘that mother f##cker let my brother die, he needs to see what it feels[s] like to die.’ His mother replied, ‘that’s not true.’ Appellant left his mother and continued to walk away.”

Johnson then returned to where McEntee lay outside of his car and shot him at least twice more in the head.

Johnson says he was out of it and grieving his brother’s death when he shot the officer. He was convicted but his lawyers filed an appeal, citing several issues, including whether he lacked the deliberation necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

However, on May 26, 2009, the appeals court not only upheld the decision but also the punishment imposed by the trial court.

“A jury found Kevin Johnson (Appellant) guilty of one count of first-degree murder, pursuant to section 565.020, for killing Sgt. William McEntee and recommended the death penalty,” court records state, “The trial court adopted the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Appellant to death.”

While his date is set, Johnson’s team is still pushing to save his life, saying as a man, who fully understands what he did as a younger person, he is extremely remorseful for taking McEntee’s life.

Since being incarcerated he has earned his GED, has been appointed the commissioner of the prison sports leagues, and works in a learning center, where he helps other inmates complete courses in emotional therapy, anger management, and even assisted them to identify trades for when they are released.

Over the last almost two decades, he has never had a serious disciplinary violation and has dedicated his life to being a community stakeholder and mentoring others.

Personally, he is a father to one daughter, Khorry, and is expecting his first grandchild.

His legal team and supporters have an application pending with the Conviction Integrity and Review Unit of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.

They have also raised an issue of racial bias, saying former prosecutor Bob McCulloch had a history of eliminating Black jurors from service. This was not just in the case of Johnson but in other capital cases. The lawyers have submitted a detailed account of how McCulloch’s office sought the death penalty in homicide cases involving white victims or Black defendants.

Lastly, they argued that Johnson was indeed hindered by an underdeveloped brain that impacted his decision-making and how he processed events.

The Missouri Independent editorial stated, “Kevin’s youth does not excuse his actions. But his youth does lessen his culpability for the crime. Grieving his brother’s death, teenage Kevin was distraught and traumatized.”

“Kevin also had a documented frontal lobe impairment that exacerbated the developmental characteristics attributable to all youth. His emotions were at their apex, and his ability to regulate them at rock bottom,” the report continued. “Like any youth, he had limited ability to consider and weigh the consequences of his actions against the immediate impulse to act on his anger.”

It is the lawyers’ hope that the death sentence will be overturned in this Hail Mary attempt to obtain a different fate for Johnson.

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