Missouri poised to execute man convicted of crime he committed at 19 years old

August 29, 2022 5:45 am

Missouri is poised to execute Kevin Johnson, a man sentenced to death for a crime committed when he was only 19 years old (Getty Images).

This summer marked the 10th anniversary of the Miller v. Alabama, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for children.

The decision recognized that youth are both less culpable for theirs crimes and more capable of rehabilitation than adults, because of significant differences in their brains and behavior. The court relied on science showing that youths’ brains, specifically the part responsible for executive functioning, do not fully develop until the mid-twenties, while the emotional part of the brain still runs full speed ahead.

The end result: Emotions and hormones are peaking, and the brain is not capable of pumping the brakes. These differences counsel against imposing extreme prison sentences on children who commit even very serious crimes.

As we mark this anniversary, Missouri is poised to execute Kevin Johnson, a man sentenced to death for a crime committed when he was only 19 years old. The science is clear: Youth under 25 are different than adults. They are less culpable and more capable of change. Yet, Missouri continues to seek death for late adolescents. Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court set a Nov. 29 execution date, despite his pending litigation.

Missouri has made progress since the Miller decision. Many people once sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed as children are now home. Thanks to a class action lawsuit the MacArthur Justice Center brought against the parole board, the board is now educated on why youth matters, and has reformed the hearing process for youth sentenced to life without parole.

To be clear, the reforms do not mean people are automatically granted parole. Instead, they have to demonstrate readiness for release—and even then, they are at the whim of the board’s discretion. And, unlike other states and every other country in the world, in Missouri life without parole is still an option for adolescents convicted of first-degree murder.

Our juvenile lifer clients are making the most of their second chance. While incarcerated, they grew, reflected and improved themselves — even before they could even hope to see the free world again. They are succeeding. They are working and paying taxes, reconnecting with family, getting married and meeting their grandkids. They are giving back to their community and mentoring at-risk youth.

We have yet to see one be re-arrested.

And yet, Missouri plans to kill Kevin Johnson, who was only a couple months older than many of our clients who have come home.

Kevin’s youth does not excuse his actions. But his youth does lessen his culpability for the crime.

According to court records, on July 5, 2005, police went to Kevin Johnson’s family home to serve a warrant. While there, Kevin’s 12-year-old brother Joseph collapsed and suffered a heart attack. Police prevented his mother from helping her son, who did not get prompt medical attention and passed away shortly after. Later that same day, Kevin saw one of the officers, said “you killed my brother,” and shot and killed the officer.

Kevin’s youth does not excuse his actions. But his youth does lessen his culpability for the crime. Grieving his brother’s death, teenage Kevin was distraught and traumatized. Kevin also had a documented frontal lobe impairment that exacerbated the developmental characteristics attributable to all youth. His emotions were at their apex, and his ability to regulate them at rock bottom. Like any youth, he had limited ability to consider and weigh the consequences of his actions against the immediate impulse to act on his anger.

Today, Kevin is not that 19-year-old kid. He is a grown man who is extremely remorseful for his crime.

Kevin shares a lot with our clients who are now productive members of society. He earned his GED soon after entering custody. He is the commissioner of the prison sports leagues and also works in a learning center, where he assists other prisoners to complete courses in anger management, emotional therapy, and trades.

And Kevin is a dedicated father to his daughter, Khorry, who is expecting his first grandchild. He has never had a serious disciplinary violation. When Kevin is not working, he reads, writes and mentors younger prisoners. But Kevin will never have the same chance to put his growth, rehabilitation and education to greater use.

It is not too late to stop this injustice.

Kevin has an application pending with the Conviction Integrity and Review Unit of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. Kevin’s defense team has detailed former prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s practice of eliminating Black jurors from service in Kevin’s case and other capital cases, as well his office’s disparate practice of seeking the death penalty in homicide cases involving white victims or Black defendants. They argue that Kevin’s death sentence must be overturned as unjust and unconstitutional for these reasons, as well as his youth and cognitive impairments.

Miller marks just one milestone in an evolution away from the extreme sentencing of youth. We still have a lot of work to do. Missouri, do not make the irreversible mistake of executing a youthful offender in the face of science and law telling us that even children who commit very serious crimes deserve a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release from prison—not a death sentence.

We know better.

Do better.

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Megan Crane
Megan Crane

Megan Crane is co-director of the Missouri office of MacArthur Justice Center. She joined the office in the fall of 2018 and launched the Missouri Wrongful Conviction Project, in partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, in the fall of 2020. With a background in capital defense, wrongful conviction litigation and juvenile justice, she brings a unique combination of expertise to our Missouri office’s efforts on behalf of youth sentenced to die behind bars and efforts to improve the state of indigent defense in Missouri.

Amy Breihan
Amy Breihan

Amy Breihan is co-director of the Missouri office of the MacArthur Justice Center, a non-profit civil rights law firm that fights for racial, gender, social and economic justice through litigation on behalf of people involved in the carceral and criminal legal systems. She joined the organization as a staff attorney when it opened a new Missouri office in 2016. Seh was previously a trial attorney with the law firm of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, in both their Chicago and St. Louis offices. She has extensive trial, appellate,and mediation experience and has prioritized public interest work throughout her career.