Khorry Ramey checked into the state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, Tuesday morning to visit her father, Kevin Johnson, for the last time.
Prison guards did not allow them to hug, but the 19-year-old was allowed to bring her 2-month-old son Kaius.
Ramey said Johnson cried.
“We had a very emotional moment. He said he felt he had failed me as a father,” he said Thursday. “We were able to get everything off our chest.”
Several hours later, Johnson, 37, was sentenced to death by lethal injection for killing a suburban St. Louis police officer in 2005. Johnson was 19 at the time of his arrest and would later testify at his trial that he was upset by the officer’s attitude. his actions and believed they were a factor in the death of his younger brother.
Ramey’s age became a point of contention when Johnson prepared a list of witnesses to his execution and tried to include it. Missouri law requires witnesses to be at least 21 years old, unlike most other states that do not have age requirements or a limit of at least 18 years.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on his behalf last week arguing that the statute violated his constitutional rights. A federal judge ruled against him and realized he would not be able to see his father’s last breath Tuesday night.
That opportunity would have been part of her grieving process, Ramey added, after she lost her mother when she was 4 years old. He witnessed the murder of his mother, Dana Ramey, who was shot by an ex-boyfriend in 2007.
“It was crazy how a 19-year-old can be sentenced to death,” he said, “but at 19 I can’t be with my father at his last moment.”
The irony was not lost on Johnson’s supporters, who included Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a critic of the death penalty.
King posted a series of tweets on the day of the execution to highlight his story and how black people like Johnson are reportedly overrepresented on death row in the United States.
“I am forever grateful,” Ramey said of the legal teams that filed motions and the supporters who signed petitions to try to stop the execution.
While she was unable to be inside the prison, Johnson’s witnesses included her spiritual adviser, the Rev. Darryl Gray. For the first time in modern executions in the state, Gray was allowed to stand by Johnson’s side as he lay on the gurney in the execution chamber.
Gray said they talked for about 10 minutes. Johnson declined to give a final official statement, but told Gray that he wanted people to know he was sorry.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry for the officer’s family and my family,'” Gray recalled. “He said he wanted to see his little brother. And he talked about the purpose. He said he thought he knew what his purpose was.”
They read the scriptures together and talked about worthiness, Gray said. He continued to read the Bible and pray while Johnson was injected with pentobarbital.
“He died with dignity. He died peacefully,” Gray said, fighting back tears. “He wasn’t angry.”
Gray, a civil rights activist in St. Louis, said he baptized Johnson in early November, even as the death row inmate admitted he had conflicts about religion.
“You’re going to question faith. You’re going to question religion. You’re going to question God,” Gray said. “I told Kevin, ‘Everything you needed to get to this point of peace, I didn’t give you.’ I was already in it. I just helped him see it.”
As Johnson awaited his fate, he turned to Gray: “Kevin’s last words to me were, ‘Rev, I’m ready.'”
Johnson began writing while in prison and wrote a book this year chronicling his struggles with mental health and his difficult teenage years.
In July 2005, in Kirkwood, Missouri, police officer William McEntee and other officers were serving an arrest warrant for Johnson, who had been on probation for assaulting his girlfriend and was believed to have committed rape.
At that time, his 12-year-old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, suffered a seizure after running to his grandmother’s house. The boy had a congenital heart defect and later died in the hospital. Johnson testified at his trial that McEntee pushed his mother when she arrived on the scene and that the officer’s actions angered him because he was worried about his brother.
Johnson said he ran into McEntee, a 43-year-old husband and father of three, when he returned to the neighborhood that evening for an unrelated call about a fireworks riot. According to prosecutors, she shot McEntee multiple times and fled. She turned herself in three days later.
During an interview with the Riverfront Times last month, Johnson expressed no bitterness toward the officer and blamed himself.
“I think as humans, we tend to shift the blame,” he told the newspaper. “I don’t think so [McEntee] He did something bad that day for which I can even blame him.”
An effort to stop the execution had been building in recent months when a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate allegations that racial bias tainted Johnson’s handling of the case before it went to trial.
Special counsel Edward Keenan had argued that the state’s case was riddled with “racist prosecution techniques” that influenced Johnson’s conviction and death sentence. The Missouri Supreme Court, in a 5-2 vote Monday, rejected a request to stay his execution. Hours earlier, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson also said he would not grant Johnson a clemency.
After the execution, McEntee’s widow spoke to reporters to describe the grief suffered by her family, particularly her children.
“They didn’t get a chance to say goodbye,” said Mary McEntee. “She took 17 years of mourning and pushing to get to this point today.”
While Gray said there is no excuse for taking your own life, he is not convinced that executing Johnson is the only answer.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first met Kevin, but he was a humble guy,” Gray said. “And he loved her daughter, and even though he was in prison, he was doing everything he could to make sure she was doing the right thing. He was more of a father in prison than any other man on the outside.”
Ramey now works as a nursing assistant in the St. Louis area. In the coming days, she plans a private reunion and public funeral for her father with the help of a GoFundMe organized by the nonprofit group Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
On Thursday, he had T-shirts made with a picture of Johnson, head bowed with hands in prayer, and “My Daddy’s Keeper” written on the back.
When her father, just before his death, spoke about his purpose, Ramey said that she had found hers: an advocate against capital punishment.
“The justice system failed me,” he said. “I want to see the abolition of the death penalty today.”