Khorry Ramey entered the state penitentiary in Bonne Terre, Missouri, Tuesday morning to visit her father, Kevin Johnson, for the last time.
Prison guards wouldn’t allow them to hug, but the 19-year-old was allowed to take her 2-month-old son, Kaius, with her.
Ramey said Johnson was crying.
“We had a very emotional moment. He said he felt like he had let me down as a father,” she said on Thursday. “We were able to get everything out of our closet.”
Just hours later, Johnson, 37, was put 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 actions and believed they were a factor in his younger brother’s death.
Ramey’s age became a point of contention when Johnson drew up a list of witnesses to his execution and tried to include her. Missouri law requires witnesses to be at least 21 years old, unlike most other states with no age requirement or a limit of at least 18 years.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on her behalf last week, arguing that the statute violated her constitutional rights. A federal judge ruled against her, and she realized she wouldn’t see her father breathe his last Tuesday night.
That chance would have been part of her grieving process, Ramey added, after she lost her mother when she was 4. She witnessed the murder of her 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,” she said, “but at 19 I can’t be with my dad at the last minute.”
The irony was not lost on Johnson’s supporters, including Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a critic of the death penalty.
“I am eternally grateful,” Ramey said of the legal teams filing motions and supporters signing petitions to try to stop the execution.
While she couldn’t be in jail, Johnson’s witnesses included his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Darryl Gray. In a first for modern executions in the state, Gray was allowed to stay by Johnson’s side as he lay on the gurney in the death chamber.
Gray said they talked for about 10 minutes. Johnson declined to make an official final statement, but told Gray 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 was talking about a goal. He said he thought he knew what his target was.’
They read the scriptures together and talked about dignity, 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, holding back his tears. “He wasn’t angry.”
Gray, a civil rights activist in St. Louis, said he baptized Johnson in early November, while the death row inmate admitted he had a disagreement over religion.
“You’re going to question faith. You’re going to question religion. You’re going to question God,” Gray said. “I said to Kevin, ‘Everything you need to get to this point of peace, I haven’t given you.’ It was already in him. I just helped him see it.”
As Johnson awaited his fate, he turned to Gray: “Kevin’s last words to me were, ‘Reverend, I’m ready.'”
Johnson began writing while in prison and written a book this year about his struggles with mental health and his difficult adolescence.
In July 2005, Police Officer William McEntee and other officers in Kirkwood, Missouri, served an arrest warrant for Johnson, who had been placed on probation for assaulting his girlfriend and believed to be in violation.
At the time, his 12-year-old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, had a seizure after running next to his grandmother’s house. The child had a congenital heart defect and later died in hospital. Johnson testified at his trial that McEntee pressured his mother when she arrived at the scene and that the officer’s actions angered him because he was concerned about his brother.
Johnson said he met McEntee, a 43-year-old husband and father of three, when he returned to the neighborhood that night for an unrelated call about a fireworks malfunction. According to prosecutors, he shot McEntee several times and fled. Three days later he turned himself in.
During a interview with the Riverfront Times last month, Johnson expressed no bitterness towards the officer, placing the blame on himself.
“I think as people we tend to shift the blame,” he told the newspaper. “I do not think so [McEntee] did something wrong that day that I can blame him for.”
Efforts have been underway in recent months to stop the execution as a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate claims that racial bias had compromised the handling of Johnson’s case before it went to trial.
Special Counsel Edward Keenan had argued that the state’s case was replete with “racist persecution techniquesThat played a role in Johnson’s conviction and death sentence. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected a motion to stay his execution by a vote of 5 to 2 on Monday. Hours earlier, Missouri Governor Mike Parson also said he would not grant Johnson clemency.
Following the execution, McEntee’s widow spoke to reporters to describe the pain her family, particularly her children, endured.
“They haven’t had a chance to say goodbye,” said Mary McEntee. “It took 17 years of grieving and perseverance to get to this point today.”
While Gray said there’s no excuse for taking someone’s life, he’s not convinced Johnson’s execution was the only solution.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I first met Kevin, but he was a humble man,” said Gray. “And he loved his daughter, and even though he was in prison, he did everything he could to make sure she was doing well. He was more of a father in prison than other men outside.”
Ramey now works as a nursing assistant in the St. Louis area. In the coming days, she is planning a private gathering and public funeral for her father with the help of a GoFundMe organized by the nonprofit organization Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
On Thursday, she had shirts made with an image of Johnson, head bowed with hands of prayer, and “My Daddy’s Keeper” written on the back.
While her father, just before his death, spoke of his purpose, Ramey said she had found hers – as an advocate against the death penalty.
“The justice system has failed me,” she said. “I want the death penalty abolished today.”