A 19-year-old Missouri woman can’t be a witness to her father’s execution after a judge ruled Friday that a state law barring her from being present because of her age is constitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of Khorry Ramey asking a federal court to allow her to attend her father’s planned execution Tuesday.
Kevin Johnson, 37, has been in prison since Ramey was 2 for the 2005 killing of William McEntee, a police officer in Kirkwood, Missouri.
“I’m heartbroken that I won’t be able to be with my dad in his last moments,” Ramey said in a statement, adding that he “has worked very hard to rehabilitate himself in prison. I pray that [Gov. Mike] Parson will give my dad clemency.”
Johnson was 19 at the time of the crime — a parallel that isn’t lost on his supporters.
“It’s ironic that Kevin was 19 years old when he committed this crime and they still want to move forward with this execution, but they won’t allow his daughter who’s 19 at this time in because she’s too young,” Johnsons’ lawyer, Shawn Nolan, told reporters Friday.
Johnson had asked for his daughter to be a witness to his death, along with a spiritual adviser, an older brother and his elementary school principal, said Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
But Missouri law says that no person younger than 21 can witness an execution. In its emergency filing, the ACLU argued that the statute violates Ramey’s constitutional rights by “singling out adults younger than 21 … without any rational relationship to a legitimate governmental or penological interest.”
U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes said in a written ruling that Ramey failed to demonstrate “unconstitutionality,” and that it remains “in the public’s interest to allow states to enforce their laws and administer state prisons without court intervention.”
In a news conference before the judge’s ruling, Ramey said in a statement that she wants to bear witness to the execution as part of the grieving process and for “peace of mind.”
“I am my dad’s closest living relative and he is mine, other than my baby son,” Ramey said. “If my dad were dying in the hospital, I would stick by his side and hold his hand, praying until his death.”
Despite her father’s incarceration, they have remained close, Ramey said. She called him weekly, visited him in prison and credits him with pushing her to continue her education. She now works as a nursing assistant, and in September, gave birth to her first child, Kiaus. She said she recently traveled to Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center and had Kiaus meet her father.
“It was a beautiful but bittersweet moment to me because I realized it might be the only time my dad would get to hold [his] grandson,” Ramey said.
Corene Kendrick, Ramey’s attorney and the deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the circumstances of a person’s age prohibiting their ability to watch an execution is an issue that rarely arises. Besides Missouri, only Nevada has an age limit of 21, she added, while the federal government and all other states have no age restriction or a requirement of at least 18.
Kendrick said denying Ramey the ability to see her father’s final moments is “gratuitous punishment” after she also lost her mother when she was 4. Ramey was a witness to the killing of her mother, who was shot by an ex-boyfriend, Kendrick said.
“This is a unique circumstance,” she added. “It’s something that none of us and people who deal with death penalty litigation day in and day out have run across before.”
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office had argued in a court filing that the current state law is “rational” because it is “preventing teenagers from witnessing death,” while also “preserving the solemnity of the execution” and “ensuring the witnesses can give reliable accounts of the execution.”
State prosecutors did not immediately comment about the judge’s ruling.
McEntee, a husband and father of three, was among the police officers sent to Johnson’s home to serve a warrant for his arrest in July 2005. 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 next door to their grandmother’s house. 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.
Later that evening, McEntee returned to the neighborhood to check on unrelated reports of fireworks being shot off. That’s when he encountered Johnson.
Johnson pulled a gun and shot the officer. He then approached the wounded, kneeling officer and shot him again, killing him, prosecutors said.
Johnson’s fate remains unclear after a motion asking for his execution to be halted was filed by a special prosecutor, Edward Keenan. In the filing, Keenan says there’s evidence that “unconstitutional racial discrimination” played a role in Johnson’s 2007 trial.
A hearing is scheduled for Monday afternoon.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, however, believes Johnson’s execution should go on and that “the surviving victims of Johnson’s crimes have waited long enough for justice.”
If Johnson is put to death Tuesday, it would be the fifth execution by a state this month in the busiest month so far for capital punishment in the United States in 2022.
A recent decision by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to pause executions in her state after an unprecedented third failed lethal injection is keeping this month from being the busiest for executions nationwide in several years.