On Tuesday, November 29, 2022 at 7:40 p.m., convicted murderer Kevin Johnson was executed by the State of Missouri.
Johnson and I never met. Yet, as the clock ticked closer to the time of his scheduled execution, I felt closer to him than ever.
I started writing about Johnson in 2005, just days after the 19-year-old shot and killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee. I was a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist who was drawn to unusual aspects of the story.
Johnson’s brother, Joseph "Bam Bam" Long, age 12, had died a few hours before the murder. Why would a teenager kill a police officer hours after losing his brother? I needed to know.
The police and newspaper’s account that McEntee’s murder was not related to Bam Bam’s death, made no sense. That curiosity led me to Johnson’s Meacham Park neighborhood, to his family and, ultimately, what they thought led to Bam Bam’s death. The boy had a heart attack at his grandmother’s house while police were outside the house.
When they were alerted of the boy’s condition, the family said police searched the house first for Johnson before seeking aid for Bam Bam. Johnson, watching things unfold from a relative’s window next door, testified that he saw police step over his brother’s body and saw McEntee forcefully keep his mother from her dying son.
This is what led Johnson’s tortured, fragile young mind to track down and kill McEntee.
Were his actions justified? No, not according to Johnson’s great-grandfather, Anderson Kimble, who answered that question thusly: “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”
Seven days after the murder; I attended Bam Bam’s funeral at Forever Oak Hill Funeral Home in Kirkwood. I described the video that chronicled the boy’s life with its accompanying song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" by Boyz II Men.
I’d hoped my words would highlight the mutual tragedy of murder and death and be considered during Johnson’s trial. But my words, Johnson’s lawyer’s words nor the words of witnesses who spoke of his fractured childhood had any sway. A jury and a judge found him guilty and recommended death, respectively.
To be honest, in the 17 years since the murder, I hadn’t thought much about Johnson. Then I read in August that The Missouri Supreme Court had set a November 29 execution date for Johnson. This newspaper allowed me to write a series about the case and looming execution.
My goal with the series was to write about the racism and prosecutorial injustices involved with the case. I did my best to humanize Johnson; to detail his abusive childhood, his lifetime of neglect, and show how he was not in the proper state of mind when he learned of his younger brother’s death.
Through the “Kevin Johnson Clemency” video posted on the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty’s (Madpmo) website, I was moved by the words of Johnson’s flawed parents, his big brother, his daughter, former teachers, principals, a football coach, and others.
Johnson’s elementary school principal, Pamela Stanfield, told me about the books she helped him write while in prison. The first was about his troubled childhood. The other focused on growing up in prison. She said Johnson was trying to finish a third book that was tentatively titled, “The Journey to the Gurney.”
Although I write “Johnson,” I find myself saying “Kevin.” It’s as if my words about him formed an intimate, invisible bond between us.
I’d naively hoped Kevin would receive a last minute, Hollywood movie-like Hail Mary when the Missouri Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments just one day before his execution was set to take place. On Monday, the courts rejected that appeal for clemency as did Republican Gov. Mike Parson who declined to stop the execution.
Kevin was executed at 7:40 p.m. Tuesday night.
Words offer no calm in the face of a cruel, flawed, biased system of legalized murder. Condemning a Bible Belt State with many pompous, self-proclaimed “Christians” who arrogantly relish anti-Jesus, eye-for-an-eye justice does little good.
If only words mattered. If only those with the power to intercede had heard or reflected on the words of Kevin’s great-grandfather, Anderson Kimble:
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”