Daughter of murder victim leads online clemency campaign aiming to 'touch the heart' of Governor Lee

Posted at 11:01 AM, Apr 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-03 20:26:23-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On December 8, 1984, Connie Johnson was murdered. She was found suffocated in Shelby County, with a garbage bag stuffed down her throat. She and her husband, Donnie Johnson, had been having marriage difficulties, and Johnson was convicted of her murder. Next month, Johnson is set to be executed for his crime.

But not if Cynthia Vaughn gets her wish.

For years, Cynthia – Connie Johnson’s daughter – had been eagerly awaiting Johnson’s execution. She was filled with rage and arranged a visit to see her step-father on death row in 2012 to explain how badly he had hurt her by killing her mother. She wanted to “let him have it,” she told an audience in Nashville last month.

But it was during that meeting where Cynthia says a voice spoke to her, saying “let it go.”

“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.’,” she said.

Cynthia’s story of forgiveness is the central plank in a concerted clemency effort and website asking Gov. Bill Lee to save Donnie Johnson from the death chamber next month.

Tuesday morning, attorneys for Johnson delivered the formal clemency application to Gov. Lee. It will be the first time the new Republican governor must make the ultimate decision about a Tennessee death row inmate scheduled to die on May 16 at 7 p.m.

The online clemency push encourages Tennesseans to write directly to Gov. Lee and focuses on the concepts of faith, forgiveness and redemption. It leans heavily on Lee’s religious convictions.

“We know that Governor Lee is a man of deep faith,” a page on Donnie Johnson’s clemency website states. “We have seen that he takes criminal justice very seriously. He has proven by his actions that he knows that prisoners are defined by more than just their crimes. We trust Governor Lee.”

The clemency application also details Johnson’s religious transformation while on death row, saying he arrived “a liar, a cheat, a con man and a murder.” The clemency application says in the years since, Johnson has ministered to other inmates on death row, and has become an ordained elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church – the only such elder in the world on death row, according to the clemency application.

“More than ever, we need people like him in our society,” said Stephen Schaffer of the Brentwood United Methodist Church, quoted in the clemency application.

Johnson is scheduled to be the fourth death row inmate executed at Riverbend in less than a year, as Tennessee has ramped up its execution schedule following court rulings allowing executions to continue.

Some inmates have questioned the effectiveness of Tennessee’s lethal injection chemicals in rendering a person insensate during executions. That doubt caused the last two inmates put to death to choose the state’s electric chair as their execution method instead.

Johnson’s attorneys have not publicly said what method Johnson would select if their clemency effort fails.

During an afternoon press conference Wednesday, Kelley Henry, Johnson's federal public defender, said aside from a pending U.S. Supreme Court appeal, there are no plans to make further court appeals, which are typical in the weeks and days before an execution date.

Henry said Johnson wanted it that way, so he didn't subject his step-daughter through more appeals. She says Johnson's future now solely rests in the hands of the Governor.

"This is it," Henry said.

The website asking for clemency for Johnson contains a produced video with interviews from religious leaders and volunteers who work inside death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

“There’s a ministry in that man that they’d like to snuff out, but if he lives, God is going to do powerful work through Don Johnson,” said Pastor Wayne Bratcher in the video.

The video also includes a message from Johnson himself, speaking directly to the camera, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a grey sweatshirt under a cream-colored standard issue uniform.

“The only message I can really give to Governor Lee, I’ve seen that he’s a man of faith,” Johnson says. “I would ask him to do what God leads him to do. I would ask him to do what he feels in his heart is the right thing to do.”