Trump’s Killing Spree: The Inside Story of His Race to Execute Every Prisoner He Could

Before 2020, there had been three federal executions in 60 years. Then Trump put 13 people to death in six months IN THE FINAL moments of Brandon Bernard’s life, before he was executed by lethal injection at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Dec. 10, 2020, President Donald Trump picked up the phone to entertain a final plea for mercy on Bernard’s behalf. The call was not with Bernard’s family or his attorneys. Nor was it with representatives from the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney office, who had recommended just days earlier that Trump spare Bernard’s life.

Missouri executes Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson executed for the 2005 murder of a Kirkwood police officer 

A Missouri inmate convicted of ambushing and killing a St. Louis area police officer he blamed in the death of his younger brother was executed Tuesday night. 

Kevin Johnson, 37, died after an injection of pentobarbital at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It was the state’s 2nd execution this year and the 17th nationally. 2 more executions are scheduled in Missouri for the first few weeks of 2023. 

Johnson’s attorneys didn’t deny that he killed Officer William McEntee in 2005, but contended he was sentenced to death in part because he is Black. The courts and Republican Gov. Mike Parson declined to stop the execution. 

McEntee, 43, was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Kirkwood. A husband and father of three, he was among the 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 to a house next door. 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.

That evening, McEntee returned to the neighborhood to check on unrelated reports of fireworks being shot off. A court filing from the Missouri attorney general’s office said McEntee was in his car questioning three children when Johnson shot him through the open passenger-side window, striking the officer’s leg, head and torso. A teenager was struck but survived. Johnson then got into the car and took McEntee’s gun.

The court filing said Johnson walked down the street and told his mother that McEntee “let my brother die” and “needs to see what it feels like to die.” Though she told him, “That’s not true,” Johnson returned to the shooting scene and found McEntee alive, on his knees near the patrol car. Johnson shot McEntee in the back and in the head, killing him. 

Johnson’s lawyers previously 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. 

But a broader focus of appeals alleged racial bias. In October, St. Louis Circuit Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott appointed a special prosecutor to review the case. The special prosecutor, E.E. Keenan, filed a motion earlier this month to vacate the death sentence, stating that race played a “decisive factor” in the death sentence. 

Ott declined to halt the execution, and appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court were turned aside. 

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. 

McCulloch’s father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. McCulloch does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment. 

Death penalty protests 

Ahead of the execution, supporters of clemency for Johnson held protests in Jefferson City, Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City and Bonne Terre.

About 30 people who gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City chanted and held signs, including a big red banner that said “Stop State Murder,” as Capitol police stood at the mansion’s driveway gate. 

In downtown St. Louis, a group of about 30 gathered Tuesday afternoon in front of the Civil Courts Building to protest. “This one particularly pulls at the heart. I’m ashamed to live in such a bloody state,” said Margaret Phillips, chair of the St. Louis chapter of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. 

In Kansas City, about 30 people gathered to the busy intersection at 39th and Troost to protest the execution, the Kansas City Star reported. “I believe that all life has an inherent human dignity,” said Julian Garcia, a senior at Rockhurst High School. “Violence begets violence.” 

Outside of the prison in Bonne Terre, a crowd of more than 50 people gathered to protest the execution, including some who took a charter bus provided by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The group sang, prayed and held moments of silence for Johnson. Some people who knew him — including two former teachers and a high school classmate — spoke about Johnson and the legacy he will leave. 

“Kevin is just a ray of light and always will be,” said Allison Adderley, who went to high school with Johnson. “I’ll miss playing Scrabble with him and losing every single time.” 

Melissa Fuoss, a high school teacher of Johnson’s, said she and Johnson had talked about how to “correct the inequities” in the justice system. 

“He has so much remorse,” said Rachel Jenness, who taught Johnson in kindergarten and first grade. “As crazy as that action was that day, that doesn’t define him.” 

Johnson’s 19-year-old daughter, Khorry Ramey, had sought to witness the execution, but a state law prohibits anyone under 21 from observing the process. Courts declined to step in on Ramey’s behalf. 

That Johnson’s daughter was barred from witnessing the execution bothered Nina Shabazz, among the protesters in St. Louis on Tuesday. “His daughter can’t even see him? Really?” 

The U.S. saw 98 executions in 1999 but the number has dropped dramatically in recent years. Missouri already has 2 scheduled for early 2023. Convicted killer Scott McLaughlin is scheduled to die on Jan. 3, and convicted killer Leonard Taylor’s execution is set for Feb. 7. 

After Johnson’s execution, Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, said, “I hope that all of this will continue to lead to a vivid discussion about what does the death penalty actually accomplish.” 

“Nobody wins in this situation,” Pruitt said. 

Parson, in a statement announcing the execution, said, “We hope that this will bring some closure to Sgt. McEntee’s loved ones who continue to anguish without him.”  

Arguments by Johnson and special prosecutor rejected

On Monday, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in two requests for a stay: one by Johnson, who was Black, and the other by a special prosecutor appointed at the request of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which secured Johnson’s conviction on a first-degree murder charge and death sentence for the murder of McEntee.

Both requests sought a stay so claims of racial prejudice could be heard by the St. Louis County Circuit Court, which previously denied a motion by the special prosecutor to vacate Johnson’s conviction, saying there was not enough time before Johnson’s scheduled execution to hold a hearing.

“There simply is nothing here that Johnson has not raised (and that this Court has not rejected) before and, even if there were, Johnson offers no basis for raising any new or re-packaged versions of these oft-rejected claims at this late date,” the Monday ruling said.

Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, also on Monday denied a request for clemency from Johnson’s attorneys.

“Mr. Johnson has received every protection afforded by the Missouri and United States Constitutions, and Mr. Johnson’s conviction and sentence remain for his horrendous and callous crime,” Parson said in a statement. “The State of Missouri will carry out Mr. Johnson’s sentence according to the Court’s order and deliver justice.”

A defense attorney for Johnson decried Monday’s state Supreme Court ruling as a “complete disregard for the law in this case.”

“The Prosecutor in this case had requested that the Court stop the execution based on the compelling evidence he uncovered this past month establishing that Mr. Johnson was sentenced to death because he is Black,” lawyer Shawn Nolan said in a statement. “The Missouri Supreme Court unconscionably refused to simply pause Mr. Johnson’s execution date so that the Prosecutor could present this evidence to the lower court, who refused to consider it in the first instance given the press of time.”

Claims of racial bias probed

Meantime, attorneys for Johnson argued in court records that racial discrimination played a role in his prosecution, pointing in their motion for a stay to “long-standing and pervasive racial bias” in St. Louis County prosecutors’ “handling of this case and other death-eligible prosecutions, including the office’s decisions of which offense to charge, which penalty to seek, and which jurors to strike.”

Per their request, the prosecuting attorney sought the death penalty against four of five defendants tried for the killing of a police officer while in office – all of them Black, while the fifth was White. In the case with a White defendant, Johnson’s request says, the prosecutor invited defense attorneys to submit mitigation evidence that might persuade the office not to seek death – an opportunity not afforded the Black defendants.

Additionally, they pointed to a study by a University of North Carolina political scientist of 408 death-eligible homicide prosecutions during this prosecutor’s tenure that found the office largely sought the death penalty when the victims were White.

Those claims appear supported by a special prosecutor, who was appointed to the case last month after the St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney’s Office cited a conflict of interest. The special prosecutor, Edward E.E. Keenan, similarly “determined that racist prosecution techniques infected Mr. Johnson’s conviction and death sentence,” he wrote in his own request for a stay.

The special prosecutor found “clear and convincing evidence of racial bias by the trial prosecutor,” he wrote in the request, citing similar evidence to that listed by Johnson’s attorneys in their request for a stay.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office argued against a stay, saying the claims were without merit. The special prosecutor’s “unproven claims,” the AG’s office said in a brief, do not amount to a concession of wrongdoing by the state, which stands by the conviction.

“The McEntee family has waited long enough for justice,” the brief said, “and every day longer that they must wait is a day they are denied the chance to finally make peace with their loss.”

Bob McCulloch, the longtime St. Louis prosecuting attorney who was voted out of office in 2018 after 27 years, has denied he treated Black and White defendants differently.

“Show me a similar case where the victim was Black and I didn’t ask for death,” he was quoted as saying by St. Louis Public Radio earlier this month about his time in office. “And then we have something to talk about. But that case just doesn’t exist.”

— Johnson becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Missouri and the 93rd overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1989.  

— Johnson becomes the 17th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1,557th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.  
Sources: The Associated Press, Staff; CNN, Dakin Andone; Rick Halperin November 29, 2022

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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