This letter from Bishop Brian was delivered to Governor Bill Lee’s office on May 9 by the Rev. Charles Fels, lawyer and priest, retired rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Knoxville.
May 8, 2019
Governor Bill Lee
Tennessee State Capital
Nashville, Tennessee 37243
Dear Governor Lee,
I am writing to you to ask you to spare Don Johnson’s life.
I am aware that Don has expressed guilt in his role in the murder of his wife and the mother of Cynthia Vaughn. After many years of living with deep resentment of him and a desire to see him executed, I am aware that Cynthia has now found a place of forgiveness for Don and a deeper healing in her own life.
As the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, the 50 parishes I preside over live by a baptismal covenant that repeatedly asks us to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human life. On the cross, being executed by the state, Jesus forgave even as he was being murdered.
Don Johnson’s life in prison has exhibited a true amendment of life and has shown many what the power of forgiveness and faith can do. Ending his life now would only show a violent world that more violence is an answer. I believe there is another way available to you—to show our state that forgiveness and mercy is the true measure of mature authority and a wise measure of executive power.
You are in my prayers as you consider my request and the requests of so many diverse voices across our state calling upon you to extend mercy to Don Johnson.
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
5th Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee
About the Rev. Charles Fels and a Summary of the Appeal
The Rev. Charles Fels, a lawyer for much of his life until he became a priest, is Clemency Counsel for Don Johnson. Fels was a state and federal prosecutor who defended, and prosecuted, death penalty cases. Not too long ago, he received a call from a defense attorney in Nashville who was looking for a person of faith to defend a man who had undergone profound change – a transformation – in prison. That man is Don Johnson, baptized and ordained in prison as an Elder to death row by the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church. Fels said if he had been asked several years ago if he would find himself in this position, he would have said no. “it’s odd,” he said, but “it’s God.” Below is Fels’ summary of the appeal:
The story of Don Johnson and Cynthia Vaughn is powerful.
About 35 years ago Don was responsible for the murder of his wife, Connie.
Connie’s only daughter was Cynthia. Cynthia was Don’s legally adopted stepdaughter. Cynthia was 7 years old at the time of her mother’s death.
Cynthia spent most of her life growing up filled with understandable anger and resentment towards Don. She became a strong advocate of the death penalty. She “wanted to see the freak fry” and said so on the many chat rooms and websites that exist across our nation. She was a strong advocate for executions.
Then she went to see Don. On Death Row. Cynthia let Don have it telling him with volcanic bitterness how he had ruined her life. The anger poured out of her like red hot lava. And then she noticed that Don was crying. And then she heard a voice speak to her. The voice said “That’s enough. Let it go.”
Cynthia found herself saying words to Don that changed her life, and his. Cynthia said to Don, on Death Row, “I don’t know why I am saying this but I forgive you.” And at that moment she found herself released from 30 years of anger and hatred. She could hear the birds sing. She could play with her children. She could go to church. And she could form a relationship with Don.
Cynthia no longer wants to see Don die. She says “Killing him now will be like killing my mother all over again. I don’t want to ever do that again.”
The daughter of the murder victim has forgiven her mother’s killer.
There is a backstory to all this. Unbeknownst to Cynthia, Don had been praying every day for three years that he might see Cynthia before he died. During his years on death row Don had felt the love of Jesus, thanks to a strong mission-oriented teaching movement by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Nashville. When Don wanted to be baptized, the SDA church erupted with joy and he was baptized, on death row.
Don became a missionary to others in his own right. The student became the teacher. He became a minister to others who like him had been condemned. He wrote pamphlets on “What the Bible Says,” He started a Christian radio program on WNAH radio in Nashville which has broadcast every Sunday for 15 years. He taught the Bible. He led worship. He helped at services led by other denominations, most notably Catholic services even though he is not Catholic. And so the Seventh Day Adventist Church ordained him, as an Elder to death row, the only person among 25 million members worldwide to have that privilege.
It is easy to mock this kind of conversion and as a one-time prosecutor I have done so. But Don’s life as a Christian now extends over 30 years and his record of specific actions of Christian conduct towards and for other people—inmates, wardens, and visitors—have been documented by Evangelicals, Baptists, Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and of course, his own Seventh Day Adventist co-workers.
Don is scheduled to die on May 16 at 7 p.m.
We have appealed to Gov. Lee to spare his life.