The United States promotes itself as being the “leader of the free world.” Yet, its legal apparatus and carceral systems have built a bloodthirsty, parasitical machine obsessed with domination, captivity and torture — under the guise of justice. This country considers itself “civilized,” yet the death penalty is legal in 27 states. Like Nazi euthanasia programs that executed prisoners deemed “unworthy of life,” the contemporary U.S. makes similar determinations with varied means across states, including lethal injections, the electric chair and firing squads (the last firing squad execution was that of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah in 2010).
The state of Missouri plans to execute Kevin “KJ” Johnson, a 37-year-old father and grandfather, on November 29 for shooting and killing police officer William McEntee in 2005. At the time, Johnson was 19 years old and in psychological distress after watching his 12-year-old brother collapse, and die, during a police house search. Johnson grew up under impoverished and traumatic conditions of child neglect and child abuse. His advocates assert that racist prosecutorial conduct and ineffective counsel impacted his defense, and that court-appointed attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence to the jury. The hung jury in Johnson’s first trial rejected the first-degree murder charge. In his second trial, by an all-white jury after the prosecutor eliminated potential Black jurors, he was sentenced to death for killing a white police officer.
Capital punishment is traumatic not only for the accused, but also for family, friends and supporters. We should reject the backwards logic that putting an expiration date on an individual’s life will somehow make this militarized and violent nation a safer place to live.
Below we are sharing a streamlined and edited adaptation from “Live from Death Row: Kevin Johnson,” an FTP Movement interview that we conducted with Johnson on November 7, 2022.
Kalonji Changa: Kevin Johnson, how did you come up in St. Louis County, Missouri?
Kevin Johnson: I liked games and coaching sports, all this stuff with the average of the urban neighborhood bring all my siblings together and some unfortunate things. I had a kid at a young age and [I had] my little brothers.
Changa: You had a child at an early age  and today your child is how old?
Johnson: My daughter is 19 now. She has a five-month-old son.
Changa: Congratulations on that and your grandson. You have shared that you grew up with a mother addicted to drugs and in severe poverty, and food insecurity.
Johnson: Yes, you know the drug situation. My father, like many of us, also ran into similar situations and was dealing with incarceration.
Changa: We’re pretty sure that that impacted you; and you were separated from your siblings for a time?
Johnson: Growing up … you want your dad to be present and do stuff; he should be your friend, [protect you]. It was frustrating [and] stressful not having them there. I have to do what I have to do to survive.
Joy James: Kevin, news articles mention that your teachers and your principal stayed in touch with you during your nearly 20 years of incarceration, and that they remain supportive. Some have said that they wished they had better recognized [the poverty, hunger, neglect, child abuse, foster care] you suffered as a child. How were you able to make connections to community and school for people to see your value?
Johnson: Anytime I was at school, you know, playing with other kids, learning stuff [that is the way that] I [got] energy and liked school. I came late to the interview today because my first-grade teacher was visiting.
Changa: You must have made a serious impact on that teacher. You’re locked up and facing the charges that you have and you have a teacher from 31 years ago coming to visit. That says a lot about your character. We wanted to hear your voice … and learn about your brother, Bam-Bam, who died the day you shot the police officer.
Johnson: He had some struggles in life; he had a bad heart. I’ve this desire to protect him. I didn’t have a father that I needed in my life, right. I wanted to, like, kind of feel for somebody else, to take care of them, protect them. … My mother gave him the nickname and it just stuck.
Changa: The last year [before incarceration], when you were 18 or 19, you said that you lived on the streets. How did you and your brother Bam-Bam stay together?
Johnson: My great-grandma is a warm-hearted woman, [she took us both in]. Me and my older brother . . . when I was 3 we would come home hungry with our mother not at home; she was addicted to drugs. We were so hungry that we would try to eat roaches.
Changa: Let’s talk about that day in [July], the events that took place.
Johnson: I grabbed my keys. I ran into the living room and he was [lying] on the floor. I should have paid more attention that he was [lying] on the floor. It was a beautiful day outside. This 12-year-old kid — it’s not normal for him to be [lying] on the floor in the middle of the afternoon. But I told him to take my car keys to my grandmother so the police would not impound my car and find my gun.
Police were confused. I could see from my grandma’s house next door. I could see my brother [lying] down in the house next door. I saw an officer stepping over something [it turned out to be Bam-Bam]. I’m getting mad. My mother is trying to enter the house to reach Bam-Bam, but police kept pushing her out. EMS pulled the stretcher through the yard with my brother on it. [Bam-Bam was pronounced dead at the hospital at an unknown time.]
Changa: That must have been extremely traumatic giving how much you loved your baby brother.
Johnson: The other two officers came over to the house. I didn’t feel comfortable being around my daughter who I was babysitting in my relative’s house next door; so, I called her mother to come and get her.
[After his daughter went with her mother, Kevin Johnson wandered through the neighborhood with the gun from his car after police left. Neighbors continuously stopped Kevin to ask if he was okay. He states that he wandered for about 30 minutes until he saw the sergeant in charge of the police searching the house. According to Johnson when he was shooting the police, he kept thinking, “You killed my brother!” According to Johnson he could hear the commotion and shouts but he mentally blacked out.]
James: Do you feel that the guilt you had for Bam-Bam’s death [having him take car keys to your grandmother’s house and being stopped by police engaged in a search warrant for you] was what caused you to lose control when you saw the police officer who came later to the scene to supervise?
Changa: The officer you shot wasn’t the one stepping over Bam-Bam’s body?
Johnson: Right. That officer came when the EMT arrived. He had nothing to do with my brother. In that moment, but in my mind, I know that he didn’t do my brother.
Changa: It wasn’t the officer himself, it was what the police supervisor represented?
Changa: What happens from there?
Johnson: After the shooting, I walked down the street and around a corner, I saw my mother. Her face jumped up from the ground. She was telling me to remember my daughter. I snapped out of whatever daze I was in. I needed to see my 2-year-old.
Changa: You were apprehended, charged and sentenced, and given the death penalty.
James: How did attorneys deal with your emotional and psychological needs as part of the defense strategy? You were in a continuous psychological crisis. You were 19; the brain doesn’t fully form until or after age 25.
Johnson: The defense didn’t want to pursue that type of strategy. The fancy lawyer was so different from the woman public defender; the first thing he asked me when he came to see was “What happened?” A year after it happened. In the first round, a majority of the jury was in favor of second-degree murder.
James: How do you see, after nearly two decades in prison, your growth and development from raising your daughter from behind the wall? Do you imagine a future of raising your grandson and supporting your daughter?
Johnson: Oh my God. I can’t support her. When I came to prison in my first week or month, I got advice from a fellow inmate who was like my father. He’s like, “Man, it’s gonna be hard. No matter what, don’t give up.” Fortunately, I had lots of friends that were involved who would go get my daughter and bring her up here after her mother was killed two years later.
James: Although you have been in prison for years, she is so lucky to have a parent to care for her; despite all the obstacles, she really knows you love her.
Changa: That’s an honorable thing, man. Members of Feed the People contacted [Missourians Against the Death Penalty] to offer support to your daughter and grandson. Hopefully, you will be free one of these days to take care of your family yourself, but we’re going to share the responsibility if that can give you any type of assurance.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah. She’s been going through a lot with the loss of her mother [who was shot in the back of the head by a man she rejected while walking with her 4-year-old daughter to Walmart].
Changa: As an organizer, I worked with several different families and individuals [Troy Davis and his family] on death row. How have you been able to cope, given that one of your biggest fears is how to support the well-being of your daughter?
Johnson: I got so many hours to live … that’s terrifying. It’s the hardest thing to cope with, and then it’s the uncertainty.
James: Do you find comfort in spirituality?
Johnson: I pray. I dream a lot; I always feel like if I can’t live the life I want, then I can escape in dreams. Prayer brings me back.
Changa: Are there any words or advice for youngsters coming up right now, for young brothers and sisters who have similar conditions and circumstances?
Johnson: I think my biggest mistake in life was just even carrying a gun. Because when you carry a gun, you create opportunities to use it and most of the time you don’t need to use it.
James: I have been talking about your case at Yale, Dartmouth, etc. People are learning more, and we plan to do more.
Changa: You’re not riding alone. We’re not just gonna sit back idly with our fingers crossed and saying, “That’s a damn shame.” Folks are literally fighting on your behalf from the block to the boardroom.
Johnson: I appreciate that love. I want to say that I have great remorse for shooting and killing that police officer.
James: Teenagers are raising kids in emotional and psychological distress because the culture is violent and does not offer enough resources. Despite a list of childhood horrors, Kevin managed to love and to be loved.
Changa: After speaking to brothers who have been on death row and organizing with and meeting their families, I can say that there is no type of pain like knowing that the state is planning on taking a person’s life.
James: The loss of the officer’s life is a tragedy for their family, community and society at large. Also tragic is systemic child abuse, child neglect and child poverty; the death of 12-year-old Bam-Bam who would be 30 this year; and a 37-year-old who should be babysitting his grandson and helping to make dinner with his daughter.
Note: The op-ed at the start of this piece was written by Kalonji Changa, and the interview that follows was jointly conducted by Joy James and Kalonji Changa. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
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