Tennessee Executes Adventist Elder
19 May 2019 | As he was executed by the state of Tennessee on Thursday, Adventist Elder Don Johnson sang the Christian chorus “Soon and Very Soon.”
As he sang about “no more dying there” and about redemption and love, the inmate was killed by lethal injection.
“After his voice stopped, Johnson’s mouth opened wide, and he made a gurgling snore sound for about three minutes, ending with a sharper, high-pitched gasp,” said the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Kelley Henry, Johnson’s attorney who was present at the execution, said that this reaction proved Johnson felt like he was drowning as acidic midazolam ate away at his lungs’ lining.
Some of Johnson’s final words were: “I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
The Adventist elder was declared dead at 7:37 p.m. CDT on Thursday. He had been on death row since murdering his wife in 1985.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee denied Johnson’s clemency request days before his execution.
“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,” said Gov. Lee in a statement short before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
According to the Tennessean, Johnson’s clemency attorney, Rev. Charles Fels, said that Johnson accepted the governor’s decision 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,” said Fels 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.”
Recently, Elder Ted Wilson, the president of the General Conference of the Adventist Church, asked for mercy for Johnson with a letter hand-delivered to Governor Lee.
Wilson asked that Johnson’s life be spared so he could continue his “important spiritual ministry.” The leader’s appeal joined others from the denomination’s North American Division and the Episcopal bishops of middle and east Tennessee.
Johnson had said that he was “too blessed to be stressed” about his execution.
He made the comment in an answer to a series of questions by the USA TODAY network via written responses facilitated by his legal team.
When asked what it was about the Adventist faith that appealed to Johnson, who was converted in prison, he said that two Adventist inmates had “opened up the Bible to me in ways I had never thought possible.”
One of the inmates whom he named as Willy Sparks had, according to Johnson, studied theology at Southern Adventist University before coming to death row.
Johnson said that Sparks “explained the scriptures in a clear way. He taught me how to read the Bible so I could understand and learn on my own.”
Even with his execution days away, Johnson said that he accepts “whatever the Lord allows to happen, even my death. If my work is done, then I am content.”
Asked if he had a message for the people of Tennessee following his story, Johnson said, “Trust that the Lord’s will be done.
“Only through a full surrender to Christ can we achieve the peace we all look for. With that understanding, all people may realize that they too can be too blessed to be stressed.
“How? Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.”
Cynthia Vaughn, daughter of Connie Johnson, whom Johnson killed, had asked Governor Lee to show the death row inmate mercy. At the time of her murder, Johnson was married to the victim.
Vaughn said that she had forgiven Johnson of her mother’s murder. According to the Tennessean, this forgiveness was the centerpiece of the clemency petition put forward by Johnson’s legal team. The document claimed that Johnson had been transformed from “a liar, a cheat, a con man and a murderer” to an ordained Adventist elder “with a flock in prison.”
Johnson was baptized as an Adventist while on death row and was ordained as a church elder at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville in 2008. Prior to his execution, he preached to other inmates and listeners to his radio program What the Bible Says.
Governor Lee stressed his Christian faith during his campaign for office. In the appeal to Lee, Johnson’s legal team described his as “an extraordinary case, where mercy, forgiveness, redemption and the miracle of rebirth in Christ all come together to warrant an exercise of your constitutional powers.”
Johnson reached out to Vaughn after his initial execution date was delayed in 2006. Vaughn visited him in 2012.
“After I was finished telling him about all the years of pain and agony he had caused, I sat down and heard a voice. The voice told me, ‘That’s it; let it go,’” said Vaughn in the clemency petition. “The next thing that came out of my mouth changed my life forever.
“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.’”