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Missouri Supreme Court considering special prosecutor’s motion to vacate death sentence due to “racist prosecution techniques”


As detailed in this local article, the Missouri Supreme Court “held an expedited hearing Monday to hear oral arguments for two motions to stay [Kevin] Johnson’s execution, in order to hold a hearing on alleged constitutional violations in his original trial.” This last minute litigation, before an execution scheudled for Tuesday afternoon, is expecially interesting because of who is seeking a stay any on what grounds:

One of the motions came from Edward Keenan, who is the special prosecutor the St. Louis County Circuit Court appointed in October to review Johnson’s conviction. “All parties can agree that the timing here is less than ideal, but we’re at where we’re at,” Keenan told the Supreme Court judges Monday….

During the hearing, Keenan said he found evidence of unconstitutional racial discrimination behind then-St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s prosecution in Johnson’s 2007 trial, after reviewing more than 30,000 pages and contacting witnesses.

State law is “crystal clear,” Keenan argued, that he must be allowed to present this evidence before a judge at a hearing.  A state law enacted last year gave prosecutors the authority to file motions to set aside convictions in cases where a person may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted.  Once the motions are filed, judges are required by law to hold hearings to review the evidence. 

On Nov. 15, Keenan filed a motion to set aside Johnson’s judgment and hold a new trial.  Within 12 hours, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott, who had appointed Keenan to review the case, denied the motion without holding a hearing. With only six working days before Johnson’s execution, Ott said the motion put the court in “untenable position.”  State law requires a hearing, Ott wrote in a Nov. 19 order, but the court “is also aware of the requirement that sufficient time for all parties to prepare and present evidence at such hearing is essential to its proper function.”

Both Keenan and Johnson’s attorneys then filed motions to stay the execution, in order to allow the St. Louis County Court time to hold an evidentiary hearing.  “The special prosecutor represents the state,” said Joseph Luby, Johnson’s attorney, at the Monday hearing.  “And at the very least, the special prosecutor’s acknowledgement of racial bias needs to be fully aired at an evidentiary hearing, and that cannot happen if the state is allowed to kill Mr. Johnson tomorrow.”  A hearing will also allow Keenan to depose McCulloch, who has not cooperated with Keenan’s investigation, Luby said.

The attorney general’s office argued Monday the Missouri Supreme Court should continue with Johnson’s scheduled execution.  “It’s a matter of undisputed fact that Kevin Johnson is guilty of first-degree murder and a fair jury determined he deserved death penalty,” said Andrew Crane, who represented the attorney general’s office.  “And the rest of what we’re talking about is just the special prosecutor’s complaints about the way Bob McCulloch charged cases.”

When Johnson was 19, he was charged with first degree murder for the killing of Sgt. William McEntee of the Kirkwood Police Department on July 5, 2005.  The first trial ended when the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of a conviction on the lesser offense of second degree murder.  However, a second jury convicted Johnson of first degree murder and sentenced him to death in 2007.  Johnson admitted to killing McEntee, who Johnson believed had been involved in the death of his then 12-year-old brother.

Johnson has been denied relief at every available avenue, including previous proceedings before the Missouri Supreme Court.  Crane argued the new state law was not intended to allow a circuit court judge to overturn claims of racial bias that the state’s highest court had already ruled on.  However, Keenan said there have been U.S. Supreme Court rulings since the state court reviewed Johnson’s claims that may change the outcome – including a 2019 ruling that a prosecutor’s behavior in other cases “both may and must be considered.”

On Dec. 1, 2021, Johnson asked St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit, which reviews potential wrongful convictions cases, to look into possible discrimination in his case.  Johnson’s former defender is now part of Bell’s conviction review unit, creating a conflict of interest, so they asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor.

Of the five police-officer killings McCulloch prosecuted during his tenure, Kennan found that McCulloch pursued the death penalty against four Black defendants but not against the one white defendant, Trenton Forster.  Keenan also discovered an “incriminating memorandum” from the trial team’s materials, showing the prosecutors strategized in advance of the trial on ways to get Black jurors stricken by the trial judge.

Crane said Monday that the memo “tells us nothing” about what was going on in McCulloch’s mind and doesn’t change anything about Johnson’s previous appellate claims.  Crane also argued the state law doesn’t require Johnson to get a hearing before he dies.

Chris Geidner at Law Dork has effective coverage of this notable case under the headline “Missouri wants to kill Kevin Johnson regardless of pending claims that racism underlies his death sentence.” Here is how this piece gets started:

Missouri wants to kill Kevin Johnson on Tuesday.

Under a state law that went into effect last year aimed at providing a means to address past flawed prosecutions and convictions, however, a special prosecutor has found “that racist prosecution techniques infected Mr. Johnson’s conviction and death sentence.” Among other concerns, the special prosecutor found that race motivated the original prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in Johnson’s case.

Nonetheless, Missouri Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane, representing the state AG’s Office at the Missouri Supreme Court on Monday, argued that the special prosecutor’s claims couldn’t succeed under state and federal precedent and/or were irrelevant. Regardless, Crane said, the state shouldn’t have to wait on those claims to be resolved before they kill Johnson.

“The fact of the matter is that cases can be pending while an execution proceeds,” Crane told the court on Monday.



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