Editors Note: At 7:40pm CT on November 29, 2022, the State of Missouri murdered Kevin Johnson.
It is, or should be, universally recognized, that poor children are not responsible for their hunger, that abused children are not to blame for being abused, and that we all have a collective responsibility to protect those too young to protect themselves. Yet if we fail in our duty to protect, and those we’ve failed to protect are irreparably damaged, and through that irreparable damage grow up to break the law, we as a society treat those same tormented children as unworthy of empathy and compassion, as irredeemable threats; as though they had raised themselves, or were somehow responsible for making the world that had condemned them to suffer. It’s as though the second a victim of societal abuse and neglect is no longer a helpless child, can no longer be abused with impunity, and can give voice to their pain, they become, themselves, guilty of the crime, we, have committed, against them.
Kevin Johnson shot a police officer to death in 2005 when he was 19 years old. He regrets this act. Mr. Johnson is not seeking in this moment to be released from prison, he seeks merely not to be killed.
On November 29, 2022, the state of Missouri is planning to kill 37 year old Kevin Johnson. Not a soul will be made safer by this act. It will make no human being’s life better, and several lives will be made irreparably worse. His daughter, at the age of four, watched as her mother was murdered, and if this execution goes forward, she will watch the state of Missouri kill the only parent she has left.
His newborn granddaughter will have no memory of her grandfather. His mother will bury another son and his older brother will have no brothers left this side of the grave. As for us, if Kevin Johnson is executed, we will have finished destroying a man we first started killing the day he was born.
Kevin’s crime was a double-act of grief: the immediate grief of losing a little brother, and the explosive grief that can only erupt from one whose life has been one long tragedy. Here’s a brief outline of how Kevin Johnson’s life led to the fateful moment for which he is scheduled to die:
Kevin Johnson’s mother was sickened by crack cocaine addiction and neglected her young sons. Kevin and his older brother recount being left alone all day at the ages of 3 and 4. Many days they had nothing to eat but the roaches and mice that infested their home.
Kevin’s childhood continued to be defined by horrific physical abuse even after he was eventually taken from his mother. Unsurprisingly, he has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. He struggles with severe impulse control disorder. At age 13 he tried to hang himself. He suffers from psychosis, a condition which weakens a person’s grip on reality and can involve hallucinations.
So when we talk about the role Kevin Johnson’s childhood traumas played in the crime for which he has been sentenced to death, we’re not speaking in the abstract, nor are we speaking philosophically or theoretically. We’re talking about the concrete ways that poverty, abuse and neglect butcher the human brain and dismember its functioning. Kevin Johnson was wounded by his childhood experiences as surely as if his leg had been chopped off, and to think otherwise requires not only a lack of basic compassion, but a malicious determination to ignore centuries of medical science.
On July 5, 2005, as police officers sought out Kevin Johnson for a probation violation, Kevin’s 12 year old brother, Joseph Long, nicknamed “BamBam,” began to suffer a seizure. BamBam had a congenital heart defect connected to his mother’s crack cocaine use while pregnant with him. Kevin watched from a nearby house as police officers casually stepped back and forth over BamBam as one might over a pile of rubbish. He watched his mother run desperately to BamBam’s side, only to be repeatedly shoved away by Officer McEntee. When she finally gave up and sought merely to look through a window into the room where BamBam lay dying, Officer McEntee, for reasons known only to himself, continued to push her away. Kevin then watched as his mother, having been thwarted by brute force, sat down and wept.
Paramedics would eventually arrive and render aid, but it was no use, Joseph Long, “BamBam” died at the age of 12 years old.
If you’re reading this and you’ve ever cared for another human being, if you’ve ever loved somebody else, it would be redundant and inadequate for me to attempt to describe the cosmic, roaring storm of rage, sorrow, helplessness, that must have been wreaking havoc within the teenager who’d witnessed all this. One imagines he must’ve wondered what more could be done to him, what more could be taken from him, and if the whole universe existed for the sole purpose of torturing him personally. Kevin loved his little brother. He describes holding BamBam when BamBam was a newborn, gazing upon the labyrinth of tubes keeping this poisoned baby alive and being overwhelmed with protective, brotherly love. Now his baby brother was gone.
Some of us might’ve restrained this hurricane of sorrow, rage and helplessness with enormous willpower. And many of us, even those who haven’t been 1/1000 as wounded as Kevin, wouldn’t have been able to, even with all our might. When you combine this hurricane with youth, the ravages of trauma and severe mental illness; Kevin’s assault on Officer McEntee becomes a truly unsurprising tragedy, an inferno whose fuel had been steadily building for nineteen years.
In Missouri, you can seek the death penalty for first degree murder, but for murder in the second degree the greatest penalty is life imprisonment. In Missouri, murder in the first degree requires prior planning. In Kevin’s first trial where his defense was able to present the evidence of Kevin’s entire life up to the moment of his crime, the mixed race jury failed to come to a unanimous verdict on murder of either the first or second degree. At the trial where Kevin was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury, the horrifying circumstances of his life were left out. It is clear from this that even in our anti-Black society, the facts of this case spoke so clearly, that justice could only be miscarried if the truth were hidden.
If you think that trauma is no reason to show mercy to one who guns down a police officer, you’re certainly entitled to that thought, but you’d be in disagreement with the prosecutor who went through two trials and two juries to make sure Kevin Johnson would die.
Consider the case of Trenton Forster, prosecuted by the same man who pursued Kevin’s execution. Trenton Forster also killed a police officer, in fact, he’d taken to social media before the killing to brag about his intent to kill cops. Yet, Robert McCulloch, the same man who insisted on seeing Kevin sent to death, treated Forster’s mental health struggles and youth as mitigating factors and did not seek death. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to say that Trenton Forster is white.
There’s no other way to present the facts in light of this and all the data that shows the American death penalty to be a tool of racist terror: Kevin Johnson is in prison for killing William McEntee. Kevin Johnson is scheduled to die because he’s Black.
This country and its criminal justice are built on placing Black humanity beyond the boundaries of mercy. We who want our lives, our families, our communities to count for anything in this land of vicious, pallid cruelty must resist with all our hearts, soul and might. We who would be free can have no other choice.
The question of whether or not Kevin Johnson will be allowed to see 38 years, whether he will survive to continue being a father to his daughter, a grandfather to his granddaughter, a son to his mother and a brother to his remaining brother, is a referendum on whether or not this society, will forever be allowed to destroy the human evidence of its crimes. Whether we will have the courage and basic decency to let Kevin Johnson continue his heroic struggle to become a better man than this world has taught him to be, is a question not of his redemption, but of ours.
To speak personally, what has stuck out most to me about this story has not been what is unfortunate, but what has managed to exist despite the misfortune, how love has bloomed in the midst of the unspeakable. It was Kevin’s love for his little brother, who was dealt an even worse hand by life, who was, from birth, vulnerable in health as well as condition, that led him to explode with grief and rage and woundedness that fateful day. It was love for the mother who had neglected him that cut at him when he saw her pushed away from her dying son. That Kevin’s mother fought vainly against an armed agent of the state to go to her youngest son, shows that whatever mistakes she’d made in the past, she was, in that moment, valiantly committed to being a mother. The bond between Kevin and his older brother is evident in the clemency video, even beyond their own words. Kevin’s daughter tells of a father who has not allowed the prison walls to keep him from his duty, of one who has done his best to guide and push her to a better life, even as his own remains tethered to a mistake he made decades ago. In a world where family ties routinely snap under far less weight, the open-hearted tenderness this family has for one another is noteworthy in and of itself, but, under these circumstances, it is nothing short of miraculous.
The relentless attack of American poverty, racism and cruel fate has violently pulled this family every which way, yet, by some force which neither sociology nor psychology can explain, they’ve bent but never broken, they’ve risen together, out of trial and torment, endeavoring to build a future. In the name of humanity, in the name of justice, I think they ought to be allowed to keep building. All of them.
Time is running out. What can you and I do to prevent this state organized murder?:
- Watch the clemency video which goes into more detail about what Kevin Johnson has gone through and includes testimony from him, his family and those who’ve known and cared for him. Show the clemency video wherever and whenever you can.
- Talk about this case on social media, talk about it with anybody who will listen. Say something every day to get this case into the discourse. To reiterate: Time is running out. Engage anybody and everybody who cares about justice wherever they are to bring this case to national attention. This toolkit will give you everything you need to become an advocate of this cause in your community and in your sphere of influence.
- Sign this petition, the more signatures it has, the more Missouri’s Republican governor will know the world is watching, and the more likely he’ll be to exercise his power of clemency.
- Follow @MADMPO (Missourians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty) for more information and updates.