Judge denies Missouri prosecutor request to halt execution

Judge denies Missouri prosecutor request to halt execution
Photo credit Missouri Department of Corrections via AP

O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — 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.”

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.

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.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Missouri Department of Corrections via AP