Seventh-day Adventist inmate denied clemency in death penalty case

Members of Riverside Chapel Adventist Church gather in front of the Capitol building in Nashville to pray for Donnie Johnson. (Photo: Facebook)

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A Seventh-day Adventist inmate in the US state of Tennessee 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 Mr 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 Mr Johnson in a recent interview with USA Today. “They opened up the Bible to me in ways I had never thought possible.”

Mr Johnson has been a member of the Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church ever since, and 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.”

Riverside Chapel pastor Furman Fordham prays with other church members. (Photo: Gannett Co, Inc/USA Today)

Mr Johnson lodged an 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 Governor Lee urging him to stop the execution, including Seventh-day Adventist Church world president Ted Wilson.

“Over the many years since 1984, Mr 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 Saviour, Jesus Christ, with those who do not yet know Him,” said Pastor Wilson in his letter.

“Mr 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.”

Mr 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 minimise the crime committed by Mr Johnson, an execution is an extreme consequence.

“We are not advocating that the governor release Mr Johnson,” said Pastor Fordham. “But what would be gained by executing him? Transformation is real. This is a new gentlemen.  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.”

Donnie Johnson. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Correction)

“Sir, we would request that you prayerfully consider granting mercy to Mr Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry that only he in his unique capacity can do,” said Pastor Wilson 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, Governor Lee released a statement a few hours ago denying Mr 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.

Mr Johnson will now be executed by lethal injection at 7pm on Thursday (Friday morning AEST). 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.”

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