Tennessee governor won’t intervene in execution

May 14, 2019
1 of 2
FILE - This undated file image released by the Tennessee Department of Correction shows death row inmate Don Johnson. Pressure from religious leaders for Tennessee's governor to grant mercy to the death row inmate mounted on Monday, May 13, 2019, as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal that could have delayed his upcoming execution. Johnson's petition for clemency has centered on his religious conversion and Christian ministry to other prisoners. He is scheduled to be executed Thursday, May 16 for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced he will not intervene in this week’s scheduled lethal injection of a Tennessee inmate who had undergone a religious conversion.

“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,” Lee said in his brief one-sentence statement.

Johnson — a 68-year-old death row inmate — is scheduled to die on Thursday. He’ll be the fourth person put to death in Tennessee in a year, after a hiatus stretching back to 2009.

Johnson was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Connie Johnson, in 1984 by suffocating her in a Memphis camping center that he managed. He initially blamed the slaying on a work-release inmate who confessed to helping dispose of the body and was granted immunity for testifying against Johnson.

Johnson was placed on death watch earlier Tuesday. According to the state Correction Department, during death watch an inmate is placed in a cell adjacent to the execution chamber and kept under 24-hour observation with limited visitation.

Lee’s announcement comes as religious leaders have pushed for clemency for Johnson, arguing that Johnson had been redeemed by Jesus. That journey included his ordination as an elder in a Nashville Seventh-day Adventist church while on death row.

Religious leaders had particularly hoped to appeal to Lee’s faith, which he touted frequently during the buildup to the 2018 election while campaigning as a first-time political candidate.

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.

“Don is at peace and accepts the call to a new life in Christ. He prays for the governor, the warden and his staff, Connie, Cynthia and Jason (Johnson’s son) and for all those who he has injured in the past,” said Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender.

This is Lee’s first scheduled execution since winning the gubernatorial nomination during the November election. Three more are scheduled in 2019.

“Don’s faith is strong, and he knows where his journey leads,” Henry said.