Kirkwood can still help save Kevin Johnson’s life
Published in St. Louis American, November 24, 2022
For most suburban communities in the U.S., the goal is to live quietly–under the radar. This doesn’t mean that all is well or that all are happy.
Ferguson was not nationally known until a police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014. The names are forever linked. The same can be said for Kirkwood and Charles “Cookie” Thornton. If you put Cookie’s name into the search bar, “Cookie Thornton Kirkwood Missouri” often comes up. Again, forever linked.
An environment that resulted in Thornton’s rampage was set in motion long before 2008. Before the Kirkwood City Hall tragedy came the violent meltdown of Kevin Johnson on July 5, 2005. The teenager believed white officers let his younger brother die without providing critical medical treatment.
Joseph “Bam Bam” Long did not survive his seizure from a pre-existing heart condition; the 12-year-old kid died without gaining consciousness. A few hours later, Johnson killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McIntee, believing him to be responsible for his little brother’s death.
Then prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch was relentless in his pursuit of the death penalty for Johnson. The case McCulloch’s team put together was not convincing. What most people don’t know, or remember, is that the first jury couldn’t decide on a first-degree murder guilty verdict. That was a true revelation given the fact that McCulloch prosecuted the case himself.
McCulloch was determined that no such misstep would happen a second time. He doubled down, making sure a predominantly white jury would see a monster underserving of grace. Johnson was summarily convicted and sentenced to death.
Death penalty opponent and defense attorney Bryan Stephenson reminds us that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Kevin Johnson was no monster before he killed McIntee. During his trial, a surprising number of people, many from Kirkwood and all walks of life emerged to bear witness to this fact – especially given the rough life he had endured. Johnson was no monster in prison either, he has been a model prisoner.
Johnson has done the things society asks of those who have committed such a heinous crime. He has never claimed innocence, always taking responsibility for his action, and expressing his remorse to anyone who would listen.
He took on his own personal rehabilitation in a system that basically warehouses humans. KJ has been an attentive father to his loving daughter, who recently gave birth to his first grandchild.
Kevin’s supporters are fighting for his clemency. While Gov. Parsons has the ultimate authority to decide KJ’s fate, I think the city of Kirkwood has a crucial role to play at this junction of the case. Kirkwood can still wage its own campaign for redemption, and to save Kevin’s life—a Black kid from Meacham Park who never got the opportunities to reach his full potential as a human being.
The execution of Johnson could open a racial wound that has never quite healed in Kirkwood. The conditions that gave rise to their anger still exist. For citizens of Kirkwood, all is not well.
Kirkwood has the power to assert its unified humanity and rise to stop Kevin’s execution on November 29, 2022. What a powerful message that could be sent throughout the St. Louis region, to the country: the 85% white suburb of Kirkwood was relentless in its efforts to stop the killing of one of its own—a Black kid from Meacham Park.
For more information on Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty or to sign the petition asking for clemency for Kevin Johnson, go to madpmo.org.