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Will Missouri Stay Execution of Kevin Johnson, Case Tainted by Racism, or Let Daughter Witness Death?

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Image Credit: Courtesy: Kevin Johnson’s Family

Pressure is growing for Missouri to stop the execution of Kevin Johnson set for Tuesday. At a hearing Monday before Missouri’s Supreme Court, a special prosecutor will request a stay in order to fully investigate how the case was tainted by racism. Meanwhile, Johnson’s 19-year-old daughter has been barred from witnessing his lethal injection because she is under 21. “We understand that the death penalty does not solve anything,” says Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who says Johnson is being “punished more severely” because of his race. Lawmakers are also urging Missouri’s governor to grant Johnson clemency.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Missouri, where there’s growing pressure to stop the execution of Kevin Johnson set to take place Tuesday. Johnson was sentenced to die for the 2005 murder of Kirkwood police officer William McEntee. During his incarceration, Johnson stayed in close contact with his family, has been a nurturing son, father and, more recently, grandfather. This is Kevin Johnson speaking about his close relationship with his daughter Khorry Ramey during an interview on Missouri’s death row with his legal team.

KEVIN JOHNSON: When I was 17, my daughter Khorry was born. And I didn’t have anything, you know, no money, no real way — place to live. I was in a group home. But I just knew I wanted to be her dad and stuff. So, you know, I felt kind of like an obligation to do for her just like I had for them, that same kind of — and she immediately became my priority. Her mother, Dana, Dana was younger. Dana was 14. Neither one of us had anything, so…

In September 2007, Dana, Khorry’s mother, was murdered. She was 18 years old, and Khorry was 4 years old. And I remember when I got to have the contact visit in the county jail, I remember the first thing out of her mouth was like, “My mama dead.” She said, “She had Kool-Aid coming out of her head.” And I think that was like the hardest part to cope with, you know, being a protective person and not being able to do anything. You know, that’s when I felt a true obligation to her, because I was her only parent, you know, because that’s my goal, to be the best father I can be.

And so, I had some communication with other people here, who told me, like, “This is what you need to do. You need to communicate with her as much as possible.” And I did that. And I try to find people in the freer world, the free world, to try to, you know, be of an influence in her life, as well. Being in prison, I still try to do everything I can for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Johnson, speaking from Missouri death row. He’s set to die Tuesday. He was 19 years old at the time of his crime. Now his 19-year-old daughter Khorry filed a lawsuit, with the help of the ACLU, in order to witness his execution, even though the minimum age for witnesses in Missouri is 21. Khorry spoke about her relationship with her father in an interview with his legal team.

KHORRY RAMEY: He’s like a normal parent who wants the kid to succeed. Probably once or twice a week I talk to my dad. Yeah, he always tells me to do my best, and just regular stuff that, like, fathers and daughters talk about, just what’s going on in my life, with how he’s feeling, how I’m feeling, what steps am I taking to do more in my life.

My dad was very excited when I graduated, especially since I graduated early. And even though he’s been away in prison, he has been more supportive in my life than most of my friends’ fathers that are out in the regular world living and have their freedom. He tries to send me stuff like scholarships or, like, people who I can get in contact with to help me further my career in the nursing field that I want to do. And he’s just — he’s always been there. So, he’s definitely — he does way more than what most people would feel like they would be able to do behind bars. …

It’s hard, because I know that if it does happen, he’s not going to be here. He’s not going to be here to watch me grow and continue to make him happy. He’s not going to be able to see me be a better parent than what he was able to be and what my mom wasn’t able to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, a federal judge denied Khorry Ramey’s request to witness her father Kevin Johnson’s execution Tuesday since she’s under the state’s age threshold of 21, saying it could cause emotional harm but did not violate her constitutional rights. She responded briefly in an emotional press conference.

KHORRY RAMEY: My name is Khorry Ramey. I’m 19 years old. I am a new mom to my new boy. And I’m not going to read [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: As the case draws international attention, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an editorial headlined “Upcoming execution shows the inherent indefensibility of capital punishment.” Kevin Johnson’s past teachers have also joined protests calling to commute his death sentence to life in prison.

This comes as the Missouri Supreme Court is set to hear arguments today from Kevin Johnson’s lawyers for a stay of execution based on racial discrimination in his prosecution and conviction and death sentence. Among those who support the claim is a special prosecutor who was appointed by the St. Louis County’s prosecuting attorney and found that, quote, “purposeful racial discrimination infected the process.” This is Tony Rothert with the ACLU of Missouri.

ANTHONY ROTHERT: This is a case where it’s the prosecutor asking to stop the execution. I’ve been doing this work for a long, long time, and I’ve never had a case where the prosecutor asked to stop the execution.

AMY GOODMAN: Missouri Governor Mike Parson could also grant Kevin Johnson clemency. If Missouri executes him, it would be the fifth execution by a state in November, making it the busiest month of 2022 for capital punishment in the United States.

For more, we go to St. Louis to speak with Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michelle. Just bring us up to date on what we should understand in this case and the agony of Khorry, the 19-year-old daughter, who wants to witness her father’s execution, but the state says, no, she has to be 21, only one of — what? — two states in the country who have this rule.

MICHELLE SMITH: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Amy.

And, yes, this is — every step of this has been an injustice and more pain and harm to Khorry. And she is an innocent person in this entire situation. And she is, honestly, just trying to be there for her father and, you know, have those last moments. And even people say, “Why would she want to be there?” I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to be, you know, near their parent when they pass away, right? And this situation is a little different, but it’s not so different, because Kevin is scheduled to be executed tomorrow, and his daughter would like to be as close by his side as she possibly can. So, the fact the court is saying that she’s not old enough and actually say — the law says she’s not mature enough at 19 to do so, again, is more injustice that is heaped upon her life.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the whole issue of racism and the editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was headlined, as I said before, “Upcoming execution shows the inherent indefensibility of capital punishment.” It read in part, “Unlike too many other Black defendants, Johnson didn’t face an all-white jury, but race was a factor in his trials. In the first, when the judge said he intended to ensure a racial mix in the jury, the prosecutor derided that as 'silly' and asked, 'Why am I being penalized?' — implying that more Black jurors would make a conviction less likely. Indeed, the six Black and six white jurors couldn’t agree on a first-degree murder verdict. Johnson was later convicted by a second jury, which had just three Black members.” This whole issue of racism infecting the trial?

MICHELLE SMITH: I will say that racism, discrimination, prejudice are embedded in every institution in this nation. And that, of course, shows itself in the court system.

Our prosecutor, who is our past prosecutor — he is no longer in that office — but he was known as the “king of the Batson.” And Batson is a case where a Black man some years ago sued because there was an all-white jury in his case, and he felt like that was discriminatory because it was not a jury of his peers. And so, the Supreme Court established that, you know, a prosecutor purposely making sure that Black jurors were not on a jury was unconstitutional. However, prosecutors still did it. And our former prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, he was actually known in legal circles as “king of the Batson,” meaning he disregarded the fact that the Supreme Court had deemed this unconstitutional. He was going to do what he could to get the verdict that he wanted. And, you know, all these cases with Black men were three-and-a-half times more likely to get capital punishment than white people. And so, he took it upon himself to make sure that racism, discrimination and all of the ills of our society were well embedded in his prosecutorial practices.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Eric Schmitt, the Missouri attorney general, who’s about to become U.S. senator, Trump-supporting U.S. senator? Right before Trump left, people may remember, there was an execution spree in the United States.

MICHELLE SMITH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this being the ending of Eric Schmitt’s attorney general career.

MICHELLE SMITH: You know, to be honest, I believe that Eric Schmitt is trying to recreate, reenact and follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump and Bill Barr, because, like you said, there was an execution spree two years ago on their way out, on Trump and Barr’s way out, and they killed 13 people. And Eric Schmitt, several months ago, you know, he started running for the U.S. Senate, and he decided — you know, to me, that’s what it felt like, at least. He decided he’s going to do his own execution spree in Missouri. And so he has asked for five execution dates. Three of them have been scheduled, and two more are pending. And this is unprecedented. Normally in our state, there is one execution scheduled a year, which, of course, is one too many. But to have the prosecutor ask for five execution dates within a span of months, and currently we have three of them scheduled, I definitely feel like Eric Schmitt is trying to follow in those footsteps and establish a pattern of executions on his way out, because he did win the Senate race, and he will be the next U.S. senator from Missouri.

AMY GOODMAN: The Missouri Congressmembers Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver sent a letter to the Missouri Governor Mike Parson urging him to halt the execution of Johnson by granting clemency, saying, quote, “Mr. Johnson’s cruel execution will not solve any of the systemic problems facing Missourians and people all across America, including the scourge of gun violence. It will simply destroy yet another family and community while using the concepts of fairness and justice as a cynical pretext. … You have it in your power to save a life by granting clemency. We urge you to use it,” said the two congressmembers to the governor. Your final comments, Michelle Smith?

MICHELLE SMITH: Well, I will say first that a lot of times people don’t understand what clemency means. Clemency does not mean letting Kevin out of prison. Clemency means the same as other people who have killed people, and also killed policemen, to give them a life-in-prison sentence.

And that is what we’re asking in Kevin’s case, because there are other people who have killed policemen, including several years ago a white youth killed a policeman and he has a life sentence, and we’re asking for the same treatment. That’s what we mean by equity and fairness, not be punished more severely because you are Black. And so, in this particular case, Kevin definitely is being punished more severely, and so we are asking Governor Parson for clemency to switch Kevin’s sentence from a death sentence to life in prison, where he can at least still visit and talk to his daughter, you know, which she values very much.

And we definitely appreciate Congresswoman Bush and Congressman Cleaver for their letter. And we understand that the death penalty does not solve anything. The family of Mr. McEntee — and we do understand that they are grieving and having grieving — they’re going to be grieving the next day. This is not something that fixes anything, that solves anything, that stops anything. It definitely instills more trauma and more pain in the families, including Kevin’s own family.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Smith, we want to thank you for being with us, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, calling for a stay of execution for Kevin Johnson and supporting his daughter Khorry Ramey. He is scheduled to die on Tuesday.

Coming up, climate activists in occupied Western Sahara accuse Morocco of greenwashing. And we’ll hear about the Spanish Film Academy giving its social justice award to the Western Sahara International Film Festival and its film school. Back in 30 seconds.

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