Christian leaders in Tennessee are pleading for clemency on behalf of a man on death row who they believe deserves another chance at life.
Donnie Edward Johnson is scheduled to be executed on May 16 for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. But the 68-year-old man experienced a religious conversion in prison and has become a minister to other inmates at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, said pastor Furman Fordham of Nashville’s Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“Don Johnson’s ministry is living,” Fordham told the Associated Press on Thursday. “He is doing behind those walls what I aspire to do outside the walls.”
Fordham and several prison ministry volunteers hosted a news conference at the Riverside church on Thursday, after attending a clemency meeting with staff for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R).
John Dysinger, one of the meeting’s attendees, said his family has grown close to Johnson after meeting the inmate years ago through his prison ministry. Dysinger said that he thinks the meeting with the governor’s staff went well and that he is hopeful Lee will show Johnson mercy.
“I have every hope they’re praying about it and they’re going to make the decision that Jesus would make,” Dysinger said.
Johnson was convicted of murdering his wife in a Memphis camping center in 1984. He shoved a 30-gallon plastic bag down her throat until she suffocated, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.
He was sentenced to death. Tennessee’s Supreme Court upheld the verdict, with one justice noting that Connie Johnson had suffered during her last moments. “The homicide was inhuman and brutal to an almost indescribable degree,” Justice William Harbison wrote in 1987.
Thirty years ago, Jimmy Pitt, a now-deceased member of the Riverside church, started a Bible study with Johnson in prison. That was the start of Johnson’s long relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist church, which is located about 10 miles from the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
Johnson now leads Bible studies at the prison and ministers to other inmates who are on death row, Fordham told the Tennessean. Johnson was ordained as an elder at the Riverside church in 2008, even though the inmate has never entered the church building.
Cynthia Vaughn, Connie Johnson’s daughter from an earlier marriage, has also joined the clemency effort. Vaughn was 7 years old at the time of her mother’s murder. In an April opinion piece for the Commercial Appeal, Vaughn described visiting Don Johnson in prison for the first time in years and venting her anger over the pain she’d endured because of her mother’s death. She wrote that she realized then that the hatred she harbored toward him was harming her deeply ― and she decided to forgive him.
Vaughn added that she now feels Johnson’s story of Christian redemption is both sincere and “extraordinary.”
“Over these past few years, Don has become one of my last connections to my mother, and his execution will not feel like justice to me. It will feel like losing my mother all over again,” Vaughn wrote. “I want to save his life.”
On the other hand, Don Johnson’s biological son has said he believes the execution should take place. Jason Johnson was 4 years old when his mother was murdered.
“He’s an evil human being. He can talk Christianity and all that,” Jason Johnson told the Commercial Appeal. “That is all my father is. That’s all he’s ever been, is a con man.”
Don Johnson is not contesting his guilt, the Tennessean reports.
Fordham, the pastor, has said that he also believes Johnson killed his wife in a barbaric way and that the Riverside church does not want to see the man released from prison. But the pastor is insisting that executing Johnson would also be cruel.
“Transformation is real,” Fordham told the Tennessean. “This is a new gentleman. He just is. And I think that there should be room for that caveat to be considered and I think that is why in our state constitution the governor can press pause.”
Tennessee is one of 30 states that authorize the use of the death penalty. Fifty-eight inmates are currently on death row there. The state executed three prisoners last year. Four people, including Johnson, are scheduled to be executed in the state this year, according to AP.
A slim majority of Americans are in favor of capital punishment. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that about 54% of Americans support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% are opposed.