A Seventh-day Adventist inmate in Tennessee, United States, has had his appeal for clemency rejected, days before his execution.
Donnie Edward Johnson, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1984, has been on death row for more than 30 years. But in 1990, death row inmates Michael Cole and Will Sparks introduced Johnson to their Seventh-day Adventist faith.
“Willy Sparks had been in the seminary at Southern Adventist University before coming to death row, and he explained the scriptures in a clear way,” said Johnson in a recent interview with USA Today. “They opened up the Bible to me in ways I had never thought possible.”
Johnson has been a member of the Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church ever since, and he was ordained as an elder in 2008. He currently supports his fellow death row inmates at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution by leading Bible studies and has started a radio program called What the Bible Says.
“He has been leading and serving in such a way that what he’s doing in there is the exact kind of ministry that we would definitely ordain someone for out here,” said senior church pastor Furman Fordham. “I was accustomed to being at different churches where you’d have a prison ministry, but I had never seen one of the prisoners leading it.”
Johnson lodged a petition for clemency last year with Tennessee governor Bill Lee, whose Christian faith was prominent during his successful campaign for office. During the application process, several Christian leaders also wrote to Lee urging him to stop the execution, including Seventh-day Adventist Church world president Ted N. C. Wilson.
“Over the many years since 1984, Johnson . . . has gone from being a hard-hearted criminal to a man who cares for others and seeks to share the hope he has found in his Savior, Jesus Christ, with those who do not yet know Him,” Wilson wrote in his letter.
“Johnson’s transformation has included his embracing of these Christian values, and he is currently serving others in the spiritual leadership capacity of elder. 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.”
Johnson’s request for clemency differs from the three other petitions filed since 2018 in that it focused on religious themes and redemption, not legal arguments or details of the crime. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has no official position on the death penalty, made it very clear that while they do not condone or minimize the crime committed by Johnson, an execution is an extreme consequence.
“We are not advocating that the governor release Johnson,” Fordham said. “But what would be gained by executing him? Transformation is real. This is a new gentleman. 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.”
“Sir, we would request that you prayerfully consider granting mercy to Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry that only he in his unique capacity can do,” Wilson said in his letter. “His death would have no redeeming or deterrent value, and we believe he would better serve the community by leading his fellow prisoners to God.”
However, Lee released a statement on May 14 denying Johnson’s request.
“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,” he said.
Johnson will now be executed by lethal injection at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 16, 2019. But he remains calm, telling USA Today he “trusts the Lord’s will.”
“If I am chosen to die on May 16, I trust that something good will come from it,” he said. “I accept whatever the Lord allows to happen, even my death. If my work is done, then I am content.”