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Stephen Johns' Execution

reflections and address for condolence letters

 

A siren whined in the near distance while 46 people vigiled Tuesday night in front of the Boone County courthouse in Columbia. My mind visioned public officials responding to help halt the crime being planned in a few hours: the planned execution of Stephen Johns. Sadly as we all now realize, other officials instead perpetuated the violence and fatally poisoned him a few minutes after midnight on Wednesday morning.

We, with Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, continue to mourn and condemn the violent death of Donald Veopel, Jr. (murdered in the 1982 robbery, the crime for which the "state" killed Stephen). It is how we respond to all murders, including the state homicide of Stephen Johns. All our state has accomplished is add more people to the list of mourners. Among those suffering from the loss of their loved one is Margie Johns, mother of Stephen. For almost two decades she, his brother, other kin and friends have lived along with him, under the heavy cloud of a death sentence. She had been his strongest advocate. To share your condolences with her, please write, Margie Johns, 3131 Iowa, Apt. 102, St. Louis MO 63118.

On Tuesday night, Stephen told me it would be okay for caring people to write her, expressing their sympathy—if as we feared, the state would kill again. Other folks have told me that she had been somewhat attached to her privacy and may not want to be disturbed. I talked with her on Monday and found her to be glad to speak with me. We have had a bit of history though. I met Stephen back in 1989 or 1990, during a visit to the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, a year or so before prison workers transferred the capital punishment prisoners to the then newly-constructed Potosi Correctional Center. During our visit at that time, Stephen stressed his innocence. He was the first "condemned" man I met in the Missouri prison system. It was the first time I had entered a state prison. Stephen really thankfully put me at ease, although I was somewhat intimidated with going behind the "Walls." I interviewed him for a radio program called "Zebra" focusing on prison issues, which I hosted on KOPN. From the prison I went to visit with Margie at her apartment just a few blocks away. I was greatly impressed by her steadfast support for her son and her willingness to have relocated to Jefferson City—rearranging her life-- to be there for her son. Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, said during his Missouri Journey of Hope talks in April that parents naturally strive harder to provide support to their kids, especially when they are in trouble. Thus it makes complete sense in considering Margie’s constancy. I have an incredibly difficult time imagining what it would be like to have a child (grown even) dwell under a death sentence and ultimately executed. The natural order of the world suggests the older generation should, after living a long life hopefully, expire to make room in this reality for a future generation. Our kids should live on after the parents.

I hadn’t communicated much with Stephen in the years since then. As I apologized to him and to her a few days I ago, I mentioned as an activist, I have felt compelled to practice a variety of triage in dealing with the death penalty—working on behalf on the men who are most in imminent danger of being executed, those typically already confronted with an execution date. Stephen continued to be in a legal holding pattern for years. And then he got his date.

Among the many memories I have, of Stephen, perhaps the most telling of his kind, joking and compassionate spirit came in our last conversation on Tuesday night, as I was driving to Potosi for the protest vigil. I asked him with as light-hearted manner as was possible, "So what kind of news have you heard (hoping for executive or other legal intervention)?" Without missing a beat, he jovially barked out, "Oh, I have got a lot of news." I took the bait, "oh, yeah?," hopefully I asked. "All of it bad," he continued. We laughed for a while and cursed. We chatted for about 15 minutes, expressed appreciation for each other and bade each other farewell. The vibrancy of this world has lost some color with the violent passing of Stephen Johns. Let us continue to struggle to end this abominable practice, taking life in a twisted manner to show our reverence for other lives.

Shalom and Life my friend,

Jeff Stack

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