MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Donnie Johnson, a convicted killer from Memphis who has been on death row for 34 years, was executed on Thursday.
Johnson had been moved to death watch, and was under 24-hour observation at Riverbend Prison in Nashville. His execution was scheduled for 7 p.m.
In October 1985, Johnson, 68, was convicted of murdering his wife Connie Johnson in 1984 by suffocating her in a Memphis camping center that he managed and leaving the body in a van in the Mall of Memphis parking lot. He initially blamed the murder on a work-release inmate who confessed to helping dispose of the body and was granted immunity for testifying against Johnson, according to court documents.
His death 34 years later came as he was strapped to a gurney, dressed in a cream jumpsuit with white socks and had a warden and his associate by his side.
Seven protesters and his attorney watched from one room while an unidentified member of Connie Johnson’s family watched from another.
Earlier this week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he would not step in to stop the scheduled execution after supporters, including Johnson’s stepdaughter, made a plea for clemency.
Johnson’s clemency petition also included, a plea from Cynthia Vaughn, the daughter of the woman Johnson was convicted of killing. Vaughn is also Johnson’s stepdaughter.
The petition quotes from Vaughn’s own letter to the governor in which she described visiting Johnson in prison in 2012 after not seeing him since she was a little girl. Vaughn said she vented three decades of anger and pain on Johnson, telling him how it felt not to have her mother around when she graduated from high school, got married and had a baby.
“The next thing that came out of my mouth changed my life forever,” she wrote. “I looked at him, told him I couldn’t keep hating him because it was doing nothing but killing me instead of him, and then I said, ‘I forgive you.’”
The petition made no claim of innocence, instead saying Johnson was “justly convicted of the murder of his wife.” It also detailed the abuse Johnson suffered as a child at the hands of his own stepfather and later in juvenile detention centers, but it says Johnson “does not place blame for his failure of character on anyone but himself.”
The petition includes excerpts from other letters sent to the governor by people who came to know Johnson through their prison ministry, volunteer work, mentoring and correspondence.
“These friends and supporters are adamant that Don’s faith is strong, and his reformation is real,” it reads. Many of the excerpts mention Johnson’s ministry to other prisoners. He also has a ministry outside of prison through a radio and Internet show that plays recordings he has made on Sunday mornings on WNAH-1360 AM, according to the petition.
However, some members of the victim’s family, including Johnson’s estranged son, Jason Johnson, wanted the execution to proceed. Jason was four when his mother was killed. His sister was seven.
According to articles, Jason Johnson made his case to Gov. Lee, saying, “If he found redemption, that doesn’t matter. That’s between him and God. His forgiveness is to come from the Lord and his redemption is to come from the Lord, not the government. The Bible also says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”
He said he would be there at his father’s execution, not because he wanted to see him die. “Just to see my family actually have some closure,” he told the Tennessean.
Johnson chose not to select a final meal and will be served the same food served to the rest of the inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
WREG’s Luke Jones was in Nashville on Thursday and provided updates.