Despite urgent efforts by top Adventist leaders, lawyers, family and friends, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee will not stay the scheduled execution of Don Johnson, an Adventist inmate on death row.
Lee issued a brief statement on Tuesday evening. “After a prayerful and deliberate consideration of Don Johnson‘s request for clemency, and after a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening.”
In December 1984, Donnie “Don” Johnson was arrested, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder for killing Connie, his wife of nearly seven years. Johnson received the death penalty from the State of Tennessee and has spent the last 35 years awaiting his execution.
Johnson’s story is exceptional. This once hardened criminal experienced a complete spiritual transformation behind bars and is a living testimony to the power of the gospel. According to a recent online news piece, “his commitment to Christianity began in the Shelby County jail while he awaited trial.” Johnson was introduced to the Seventh-day Adventist faith by other inmates and was baptized while on death row.
Johnson is an ordained elder at the Riverside Chapel Adventist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and although incarcerated, his ministry has changed lives for eternity. “‘He started becoming one of the leaders of our prison ministry,’ said Pastor Furman F. Fordham II, senior pastor at the Riverside church, who ordained Johnson in 2008. ‘Young men were leaving Riverbend (prison) as changed individuals.’”Johnson has hosted his own radio program, What the Bible Says, from jail.
Among the many people who appealed to the governor, calling for clemency in Johnson’s case, are Johnson’s step-daughter, Cynthia Vaughn; Fordham II; Elder Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists; and President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Ted N.C. Wilson.
In a letter, Wilson had requested that Governor Lee, “prayerfully consider granting mercy to Mr. Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry that only he in his unique capacity can do.”
Johnson’s clemency attorney, Rev. Charles Fels responded to Lee’s statement on behalf of Johnson, saying that the inmate “accepts it as God’s will.”
“ ‘Although we appreciate Gov. Lee and his staff for carefully considering our application for clemency for Don, we, along with thousands of Christians in Tennessee and around the world, are deeply saddened by today’s decision,’ Fels said in a statement. ‘Also disappointed are thousands of citizens who had hoped that Governor Lee would use his unique constitutional clemency power to consider matters that no court could, including moral transformation, forgiveness, and the entire positive arc of Don’s life after 1984.’”
Johnson will die by lethal injection on Thursday, May 16.