Don Johnson executed at Riverbend for killing his wife decades ago in Memphis


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN/AP) — A man convicted of killing his wife decades ago at a camping center he managed in Memphis was put to death Thursday evening in Tennessee.

Sixty-eight-year-old inmate Don Johnson received a lethal injection for his conviction in the 1984 suffocation of his wife, Connie Johnson. He initially blamed the slaying on a work-release inmate who confessed to helping dispose of the body and who was granted immunity for testifying against Johnson.

John’s attorney, Federal Public Defender Kelly Henry visited Johnson between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. Thursday evening. She described their visit: 

When we met I shared with him messages from loved ones.  He read scripture to me, and his favorite bible verses.  He was tired but at peace. We prayed at the end. Then he did sing the spiritual to me:  “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all day long”  (lyrics from “Blessed Assurance”)

The execution protocol began around 7 p.m. Johnson was pronounced dead by prison officials at 7:37 p.m.

Henry, who fought to get clemency for Johnson, said he sought and was given forgiveness and gave his life over to the Lord.  

“Those of us who know him know that he was redeemed and know that he’s going to a better place. Don was at peace,” she said. 

No one from Johnson’s family was at the prison to watch the execution. Most of the witnesses were reporters who watched from a room adjacent to the death chamber. They watched through a window with blinds that were raised at 7:17 pm 

They say Johnson was strapped down on a gurney with IVs running into both arms. He said a long prayer, asking for forgiveness “for those I’ve hurt.” 

Reporters recounted his final words at 7:19 pm: “I pray my life has meant something. I thank you for your blessings. I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen”   

Witnesses also heard him sing two spirituals: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” and “Soon And Very Soon We Are Going To See The King.”

At 7:22, they say his voice trailed off as the drugs began to work. 

Johnson is the fourth person executed in Tennessee since August. The last two inmates executed in Tennessee chose the electric chair, saying they believed it offered a quicker and less painful death than the state’s default method of lethal injection.

Johnson has spent half his life on death row and seen three execution dates come and go as his appeals played out in court, including challenges to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocols. The state’s present default method is a three-drug combination that includes the sedative midazolam, which inmates have claimed causes a prolonged and excruciating death. Legal challenges to that lethal injection have appeared to stall, at least temporarily, and three more executions are scheduled this year in Tennessee after Johnson’s.

Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that he would not intervene, following “prayerful and deliberate consideration” of Johnson’s clemency request.

Religious leaders, including the president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which Johnson belongs, had asked Lee to spare Johnson’s life. Supporters of clemency said Johnson had undergone a religious conversion and cited his Christian ministry to fellow inmates. Johnson is an ordained elder of the church in Nashville.

Connie Johnson’s daughter, Cynthia Vaughn, has said she’s forgiven Johnson and joined in the request for clemency. Other relatives had sent a letter to the governor asking that the execution move forward. “I ask you to please bring justice to our family after 35 years of exhausting heartache, sorrow, and emptiness,” wrote the victim’s sister, Margaret Davis.

Johnson’s attorneys said he did not intend to file any last-minute legal challenges.

On Wednesday, the inmate’s attorneys made public a statement from Johnson to his son, stepdaughter and other members of Connie Johnson’s family in which he begged for their forgiveness. “I am truly sorry and if I knew something that I could do to ease your pain I would gladly do it,” Johnson wrote.

Defense attorneys said Thursday that the inmate declined to request a special last meal, instead asking supporters to provide a meal to a homeless person. The Nashville church where the inmate is an ordained elder was collecting grocery gift cards for a meal next week for the homeless and planned a vigil as the execution hour loomed.

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