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Kevin Johnson sought faith before his execution. He found the Rev. Darryl Gray

Rev. Darryl Gray speaks about the Memphis Sanitation Workers on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, during a demonstration at the Amazon DS-4 Distribution Warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill.
Avery Lea Rogers
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The Rev. Darryl Gray speaks during a demonstration in January 2022 outside the Amazon DS-4 Distribution Warehouse in Edwardsville.

The Rev. Darryl Gray has seen Missouri’s death penalty firsthand. A senior pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Gray served as spiritual adviser to Kevin Johnson and comforted the condemned man on the day of Johnson’s execution, Nov. 29.

KevinJohnson1_credJeremyWeis.jpg
Jeremy Weis
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Kevin Johnson, 37, was executed in November for the 2005 murder of Sgt. William McEntee.

“I've been a member of the clergy for 40 years. And I'm not naive: I do understand that there are people, particularly incarcerated, who find faith, and they find it for convenience, more than conviction,” Gray said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. “I wanted to make sure that this was not one of those situations.”

But Johnson convinced Gray he was serious. The two began meeting in the months leading up to the execution date. They bonded over what Gray called Johnson’s “fractured faith.”

“Kevin and I talked about dignity,” he continued. “One of the things he said to me, before he died, he said, ‘I'm going to see my brother’… that acknowledgement confirmed to me that he had reconciled his life. And that he was convinced that death was not going to be the end.”

The death of Johnson’s 12-year-old brother, Joseph “Bam Bam” Long, took place on July 5, 2005, just hours before Johnson murdered Kirkwood police sergeant William McEntee. Johnson, Gray says, blamed himself not just for the murder of McEntee, but for indirectly causing his little brother’s seizure as McEntee and other officers tried to serve a warrant for Johnson’s arrest. 

Johnson was 19 years old at the time of the killing. He was 37 on the day of his death.

Gray first discussed his meetings with Johnson with St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Erin Heffernan, whose story chronicled the connection between the pastor and condemned inmate.

On Wednesday, Gray said that it was important for him to explain the story of Johnson’s faith — and, he added, why it is different from the story of his crime.

“As a faith leader, I believe in second chances. I believe in redemption, I believe in salvation,” Gray said. “I also wanted people to see that we were talking about two different people. And so I thought that it was important for people to understand that no matter where we start, what matters is where we end. And I wanted people to know about Kevin's ending.”

To hear more from Gray, including his reaction to the execution earlier this week of Amber McLaughlin, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Rev. Darryl Gray reflects on Kevin Johnson and Missouri's death penalty

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org. 

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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