In recent days, Adventist media outlets, including Adventist News Network, Adventist Review, Adventist Today, and Spectrum Magazine, have published appeals, most notably by General Conference President Ted Wilson, for clemency in the case of 68 year old Donnie Johnson, who was sentenced to the death for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie.
Johnson was apparently converted in prison, had become a Seventh-day Adventist, had developed an active prison ministry, and was made an elder in a local Adventist church (which he had never set foot in) in recognition of his ministry. The appeal for clemency was based upon the remoteness of the crime (35 years ago), Johnson’s apparently changed life and active prison ministry, and that it would be better for his fellow inmates and for society if Johnson continued his ministry while serving a life sentence.
Tennessee governor Bill Lee ultimately declined to grant clemency, however, and Johnson was executed last night at 9:01 p.m.
Most have agreed with the widespread calls for clemency in the name of showing mercy and forgiveness for a transgression decades ago. But is this biblical? Is it wise from a public policy standpoint?
Donnie E. Johnson grew up in a broken home that was filled with abuse and violence. His clemency appeal, dated April 3rd, 2019, detailed the horrors of his early life including his early involvement with the criminal justice system. By the time he reached age 15 he became, in his own words, a “terror,” but was described by his attorneys as a “frail little boy, with bad eyes, and no love”. (That Johnson was badly abused during his childhood was not presented as mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase of Johnson’s murder trial, nor at any time until Johnson was faced with execution of sentence, and frantic 11th-hour appeals for clemency were made. ) As the years passed, Donnie’s rap sheet grew to include armed robbery and aggravated assault.
At the age of 34, Johnson had progressed to become a manager and a salesman for a camping equipment center in Memphis. He was married to another wife, Connie, and despite his past problems, employed. Connie had also worked at the camping equipment store. Johnson had been unfaithful to the marriage, but denied involvement with another woman at the time of murder.
Connie Johnson was murdered in the office of the camping equipment store. A convict named Ronnie McCoy was working at the store while on work release from prison. He and Johnson cooperated to place Connie’s body in her Ford van and drive it to the parking lot of a local shopping center, leaving it there to create the impression that Connie had been attacked and killed while Christmas shopping. Both McCoy and Johnson would later testify that the other man killed Connie.
When Connie’s body was found, police discovered that a plastic garbage bag had been forced into her mouth resulting in asphyxiation, or suffocation. She bled from the nose and ears. Although the her body was found in her van at a shopping mall, traces of her blood were found on a couch in the office of the camping equipment store. It was estimated according to testimony (2), that it likely took 1-4 minutes for her to die after the plastic bag was forced down her throat.
A summary of the evidence supporting Don Johnson as the perpetrator is as follows:
Johnson and the victim were married and had experienced difficulties in their marriage. Connie had previously threatened to separate from Johnson.
Ronnie McCoy testified that, on the evening of December 8, 1984, he had left Donnie and Connie alone in the office at the camping center for approximately ten to fifteen minutes. When he returned to the office, Connie was dead.
Johnson and Ronnie McCoy transported Connie’s body in her van and left the van in a shopping center parking lot.
Johnson and McCoy placed Mrs. Johnson’s glasses, shoes, coat and earrings in the van.
Johnson contacted Barry Pfister at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday evening, inquiring about his wife. Specifically, he informed Pfister that his wife was going to meet him at the sales office and asked Pfister to inform her that he was on his way.
Johnson contacted his employer the next morning making an inquiry as to the whereabouts of his wife.
Connie’s van contained no ignition keys. Her keys—the only set—and other personal items were found behind the seat of the Donnie’s truck.
In his statement to the police, Johnson never mentioned Ronnie McCoy as a suspect. Indeed, Johnson first implicated Ronnie McCoy at the penalty phase of his trial, only after having been found guilty of first degree murder.
At the sentencing hearing, Johnson did not offer any testimony regarding his past family history, although Johnson’s clemency lawyers have alleged that his trial counsel was not competent to conduct a capital murder defense and specifically was unprepared for the sentencing phase.
Connie Johnson was described as a concerned and involved mother, and an exceptional cook and housekeeper, who enjoyed her life and loved her children (3). Her children recounted the family cookouts, Connie’s motivation to go beyond the call of duty, and her demonstrated love for Donnie. However, there were problems in the relationship.
Following the initial trial, there were continued appeals and judicial proceedings for many years. An execution date was set in 2004, and it was in 2004 that Johnson was introduced to the SDA church through prison ministry. For several years, an Adventist couple visited him, and he would send money to the children of this couple on their birthdays, annually. Years later they would refer to him as “uncle Don”.
In 2006, Johnson applied for DNA testing on the plastic bag, hoping to shift blame onto McCoy, meaning that, even at that late date, Johnson was still trying to get his conviction reversed on the ground of actual innocence. That application was denied, and the denial upheld on appeal, in 2007 (5). Yet only a year later in 2008, Donnie Johnson was made an Elder of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The pastor of the church who made him an elder described the prison ministry experience: “We were his assistants.”
Donnie continued his legal maneuvering and more recently joined a group of inmates in appealing the constitutional nature of his pending death sentence due to concerns over pain and suffering associated with the drug chosen for lethal injections.
This case presents a unique opportunity for evaluation from a mental health perspective. Donnie’s case is significant for several factors on the Psychopathy Checklist which includes glib and superficial charm, grandiose estimation of self, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulation, lack of remorse or guilt (he did not confess guilt for over 20 years), shallow affect, lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls, early behavioral problems (prior to the age of 15), sexual promiscuity, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, many short term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility. His case is positive according to records for most if not all of the psychopathic checklist features which presents a particular problem.
Current literature on mental health suggests a particular danger with skillful psychopathic individuals. Many offenders diagnosed have demonstrated long careers of conning, defrauding and scamming others. Grooming behavior including giving gifts is associated with some forms of psychopathy in attempt to manipulate the recipient. Through their obvious charm some become cult or religious leaders and cater to their own narcissism through deception of others. Research has demonstrated that psychopathic individuals who participated in treatment programs and received the most positive evaluations had the highest psychopathic checklist scores and the highest recidivism rates (6). These individuals are most likely to be capable of playing the convincing role of a motivated, remorseful, rehabilitated inmate to satisfy their requirements.
Evidence suggests that there are long term neural changes in individuals with psychopathy including reduced autonomic responses to the pain and distress of others, and changes in the frontal lobe (decision making) and amygdala (fear processing center) of the brain (7). They are numbed to the pain of others and lack empathy. A similar numbing effect might be spiritually compared to the unpardonable sin of kicking against the holy spirit until the conscience no longer bothers an individual. As a result of these long term changes psychopathic individuals are 20-25 times more likely to be in prison, 4-8 times more likely to violently re-offend, and are resistant to most forms of treatment (8). While newer research has demonstrated the possibility for neural plasticity, this takes time and is not a quick process. Yet despite the long-term nature of the problems these individuals face, a mere year after the appeal in 2007 where Donnie attempted to manipulate yet again the DNA evidence, the church made him an Elder.
I would argue that the local church leaders made an error in making Donnie Johnson an elder under these circumstances. Scripture says, “Lay hands on no man suddenly” (1 Tim. 5:11), meaning that we should not be in a hurry to elevate a recent convert, or a younger believer, to the office of elder. The Spirit of Prophecy states regarding the office of elder: “It takes time for character to be developed, there must be time to learn what men really are.” TDOC 229.5. Caution is especially appropriate when we are dealing with someone who is not “the husband of one wife” but has been married multiple times and even murdered his wife!
However, the failure in our church to properly consider the qualifications for a church leader is nothing new. The church has lately been electing all manner of individuals who are in open sin into church leadership positions.
Despite the recent lack of clarity from the BRI (9), the question of the death penalty in Scripture and Spirit of Prophecy is quite clear. EGW states
“How carefully God protects the rights of men! He has attached a penalty to willful murder. 'Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed' (Genesis 9:6). If one murderer were permitted to go unpunished, he would by his evil influence and cruel violence subvert others. This would result in a condition of things similar to that which existed before the flood. God must punish murderers. He gives life, and He will take life, if that life becomes a terror and a menace. Mercy shown to a willful murderer is cruelty to his fellow men." (2 SAT 186.4; Ms 126, 1901)”.
Notice what scripture states, “By man shall his blood be shed”. Many Adventists are calling for God alone to punish but this is not biblical! Romans 13:4 establishes the legitimacy of capital punishment:
“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
We gather from this that the State of Tennessee is acting as God’s agent in bringing punishment on Donnie Johnson. The problem is not with the punishment itself, but with the lengthy delay in its execution (35 years) which goes a long way toward vitiating the effectiveness of capital punishment as either deterrent or retribution.
The Bible is full of examples where God forgave but did not mitigate punishment. Moses struck the rock and despite his repentance, he still did not enter Canaan. David had Uriah murdered; he was forgiven for this heinous sin after sincere repentance but paid a terrible price in the death of his child with Bathsheba, and the later rebellion of Absalom. Ellen G. White states, “The sentence of death was transferred from David to the child of his sin. . . as a part of his punishment, was far more bitter than his own death could have been” EP524.2. Throughout biblical history, the children of Israel, Adam and Eve, and many others repented yet still faced judicial punishment.
Donnie Johnson spent years contesting his guilt and when faced with no other option finally repented under duress. Under the influence of the threat to his life, he claimed repentance and conversion. And while his personal transformation may be genuine and true, I am thankful that it did not bring about the commutation of his sentence. My position is like that of Johnson’s son, Jason, who was four years old when his mother was murdered, and who also opposed a grant of clemency:
“If he found redemption, that doesn’t matter, that’s between him and God. His forgiveness is to come from the Lord and his redemption is to come from the Lord, not the government."
What would have become of Johnson’s ministry if, after winning clemency, his ardor for winning souls cooled or even completely evaporated? In that case his entire ministry would have been seen as a stratagem to avoid punishment. Or consider this: had he obtained clemency, his ministry would have served as an example and blueprint to psychopathic con men on how to avoid a well-earned sentence of death. His conversion, be it genuine or affected, would have become an example of what to say and how to act to avoid punishment.
Waiting until the door of the ark is closed and raindrops are falling is far too late to begin knocking on the door.
If the conversion is genuine, it ought to happen! If not, God will judge righteously on That Day.
James Bowen is a member of the SDA church and a graduate of Southern Adventist University with a masters degree in nursing.