Pressure from religious leaders mounts in death row case


This undated image released by the Tennessee Department of Correction shows death row inmate Don Johnson. Supporters of Johnson appealed to Gov. Bill Lee’s strong Christian faith on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in requesting clemency for the prisoner they say was redeemed by Jesus. Johnson, 68, was convicted of murdering his wife Connie Johnson in 1984 by suffocating her in a Memphis camping center that he managed. His execution is scheduled for May 16.(Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.  — Pressure from religious leaders for Tennessee’s governor to grant mercy to a death row inmate mounted Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal that could have delayed his upcoming execution.

Don Johnson’s petition for clemency has centered on his religious conversion and Christian ministry to other prisoners. That journey included his ordination as an elder in a Nashville Seventh-day Adventist church while on death row.

In a letter hand-delivered to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday, worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N.C. Wilson asked Lee to consider sparing Johnson’s life so he could continue his “important spiritual ministry.”

“I am told that he has brought other prisoners to Christ, leading them to make a full surrender to God, and that this is having a positive influence throughout the prison and beyond,” Wilson wrote of Johnson.

The letter is one in a series of appeals from religious leaders that includes the president of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Episcopal bishops of middle and east Tennessee.

Johnson is scheduled to be executed Thursday for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. Her daughter, Cynthia Vaughn, has forgiven Johnson and joined in the request for clemency, but other relatives sent a letter to the governor asking that the execution move forward.

In the letter, Connie Johnson’s sister, Margaret Davis, called Johnson a “con man” who would kill again if set free.

The appeal rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday was the last legal resort for Johnson, whose attorneys have said he does not want to file any last-minute challenges.

The case involved Tennessee’s midazolam-based lethal injection combination, but it didn’t directly challenge lethal injection. Instead it took aim at Tennessee secrecy laws that shield information about the procurement of execution drugs.

The 23 death row inmates who are plaintiffs in the suit argued the laws prevented them from proving a more humane drug is available.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from her colleagues’ Monday decision not to consider the case. She wrote that requiring prisoners who challenge a method of execution to prove there is a better method available is “fundamentally wrong” and added that state secrecy laws compound the injustice.

The last two prisoners executed in Tennessee chose to die in the electric chair rather than by the state’s default method of lethal injection, saying they believed electrocution would be quicker and less painful. Because Johnson has not requested the electric chair, he will be put to death by lethal injection.

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