Spiritual adviser hopes for clemency for death row inmate

The spiritual adviser for a Tennessee man scheduled to be executed next week said on Thursday he is still hopeful the governor will grant clemency to the inmate he says has been redeemed by Jesus.

Speaking at a news conference, John Dysinger said he was part of a group that attended a clemency meeting with Gov. Bill Lee's staff on behalf of Don Johnson. He said the meeting was scheduled to last an hour but stretched to three.

"I felt like the governor's staff heard us out very well. They were engaged. They asked deep and probing questions. And I think they're taking it very seriously," Dysinger said. "I have every hope they're praying about it, and they're going to make the decision that Jesus would make."

Lee had never held elected office before winning the governorship with a campaign last year that centered on his religious faith.

Johnson, who was convicted of murdering his wife Connie Johnson in 1984, has centered his plea for clemency on his religious conversion in prison. The 68-year-old's story of redemption includes the forgiveness of his stepdaughter, Cynthia Vaughn, the daughter of Connie Johnson, who has joined the clemency request.

Dysinger said he first met Johnson years ago when he made the unusual decision to include his wife and young children in his prison ministry. His youngest was 1 year old at the time and now is 16.

"He's definitely part of the family," Dysinger said of Johnson. "He's Uncle Don to the kids. They are very invested in his life, and he's had a very positive impact on their lives."

At the Thursday news conference with Dysinger were five other men who know Johnson through their work as religious volunteers in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. All spoke of Johnson's strong religious faith and ministry, calling him a light in a dark place.

The news conference was held at Riverside Seventh Day Adventist Church, where Johnson is an elder assigned to minister to his fellow inmates. Two banners in the lobby outside the sanctuary refer to the upcoming execution of "our Donnie Johnson" and ask churchgoers to "Join the Journey: Forgiveness for Don."

Pastor Furman Fordham explained that he ordained Johnson after church volunteers had worked with him for years in their prison ministry.

Fordham said that unlike the others at the Thursday news conference, he was not a regular prison visitor. But he was able to see that Johnson's ministry was bearing fruit when a former prisoner walked into Riverside saying he had learned about the church while studying the Bible with Johnson.

"Don Johnson's ministry is living," Fordham said. "He is doing behind those walls what I aspire to do outside the walls."

Tennessee executed three inmates in 2018 after a nine-year hiatus, during which legal challenges to the state's lethal injection protocols put all executions on hold. Johnson's execution, scheduled for May 16, is the first of four planned in 2019.