Man executed for killing wife decades ago in Memphis

Inmate petitioned governor for clemency based on his religious conversion in prison

By Travis Loller
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A man convicted of killing his wife decades ago at a camping center he managed in Memphis prayed and sang hymns as he was put to death Thursday in Tennessee.

Don Johnson, 68, was executed via lethal injection inside a maximum-security Nashville prison for the 1984 suffocation of his wife, Connie Johnson.

Don Johnson’s last words were a long prayer that in some places echoed the words of Jesus as he was crucified.

After the lethal injection drugs began flowing, Johnson sang “They’ll Know We Are Christians” and then “Soon and Very Soon.” His voice trailed off in the middle of the second song after the words, “no more dying there.”

Shortly afterward, Johnson began making noises that some witnesses interpreted as snores and others said were more like gurgling and gasping. The noises continued for about three minutes before he made a final high-pitched vocalization and fell silent.

He was pronounced dead at 7:37 p.m.

After the execution, one of his attorneys, Kelley Henry, said she believes the noises Johnson was making were an indication that he could feel the pain of the three execution drugs. Courts have rejected challenges to Tennessee’s midazolam-based lethal injection protocols, but Henry said claims about the pain the drugs cause is unrefuted.

Johnson became the fourth person executed in Tennessee since August. The last two inmates executed in Tennessee chose the electric chair, saying they believed it offered a quicker and less painful death than the state’s default method of lethal injection. Three more executions are scheduled for later this year in Tennessee.

After the execution, Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor read a statement from Connie Johnson’s sister, Margaret Davis.

“Connie’s death was inhumane and indescribable,” she said, and Don Johnson was rightly sentenced to die. But the 34 years he spent on death row are an indication that the criminal justice system “needs to be reevaluated.”

Johnson saw three execution dates come and go as his appeals played out in court. Once they were exhausted, he petitioned the governor for clemency based on his religious conversion in prison and Christian ministry to other inmates.