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A Tale of Two Cases and One Horribly Broken System

There are not many things that inspire me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. My grandmother used to say that the good Lord didn’t intend us to be up before there was light to see by, and I took her words to heart. Still, I had to make the drive from Nashville to Memphis on Monday to get to the Shelby County Courthouse by 9:00 a.m. when arguments would be made in the Sedley Alley case.

Mr. Alley was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins in Shelby County. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation that lasted for hours but later admitted that he had no memory of the night of the crime because of his heavy drinking. Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false as key details in his statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts also raise questions about Mr. Alley’s guilt. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s vehicle. Shoe prints at the scene did not match Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described the man as 5’6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-length hair, and a light complexion.

But even with all of this questionable evidence, the state had the confession and forged ahead. Numerous items of evidence from the crime scene that were in the State’s custody were never tested for DNA, including men’s red underwear found near Ms. Collins’s body that police believed were worn by her attacker.

In 2006, just prior to the Mr. Alley’s execution, even the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended the State do the testing. But then-Governor Bredesen did not take action. Instead, he punted the decision to the state courts, which refused the testing.

On June 28, 2006, Sedley Alley was executed by the State of Tennessee. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court admitted the ruling in Mr. Alley’s case was wrong and overruled it in State v. Powers.

In another plot twist only a few months ago, the Innocence Project received a letter from law enforcement sources in St. Louis informing them that a man named Thomas Bruce is now under indictment there for homicide and rape. The letter indicated that they believe this man might be a serial offender. After law enforcement looked into Mr. Bruce’s background and the places that he previously lived, they discovered that he was taking courses at the same Avionics Training School in Millington as Ms. Collins in the months prior to her murder.

Once Sedley Alley’s daughter, April Alley, who is also the executor of his estate, became aware of this new information, she petitioned the Criminal Court for Shelby County for the post-conviction DNA testing. She has also requested that Governor Lee order the DNA testing pursuant to his power to grant posthumous pardons.

I did make it to the hearing just in time for the proceedings. I heard attorneys Barry Scheck and Stephen Ross Johnson make a powerful case for the testing. I heard three death row exonerees, also present for the hearing, tell the media why DNA testing is so critical to ensure that innocent people are not executed and to get to the truth in this case. I also heard the Shelby County Assistant DA argue that the law only allows the person convicted of the crime to request testing, not his or her estate, so the testing should not be allowed.

This is the State’s argument? So the Tennessee court okays the execution of Sedley Alley without allowing him DNA testing, reverses the decision five years after his execution, and now the State argues that for testing to occur now, Mr. Alley has to request it. The State does know that it executed him, right?

This ridiculous argument led the Johnson City Press Editorial staff to write, “Of all the preposterous legal situations we’ve read about in recent years, an effort this week to halt a DNA inquiry in a Tennessee execution review might just take the cake.” Amen to that.

Obviously, we don’t know what the testing will show…precisely why we need it. But regardless of the results, the testing will get us closer to the truth. The truth is all that April Alley wants. And we all should want the truth too, not just because it is what our justice system is supposed to be about but also because it might identify another person as the perpetrator of this crime, a person who has been out there since 1985 possibly committing other heinous crimes.

This push for DNA testing comes at the same time that the Tennessee Attorney General has requested that nine more execution dates be set and made an unprecedented move to appeal a decision made by Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk to reduce Abu Ali Abudur’Rahman’s death sentence to life. General Funk agreed to this new sentence because of the overt racism and prosecutorial misconduct that infected Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s trial. In appealing the decision made by an elected DA and approved by a judge, the State has demonstrated yet again, as it has in Mr. Alley’s case, that what it is actually defending is not justice but maintaining a conviction, not truth but a broken process.

Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s attorney Brad MacLean shared the same sentiment at the conclusion of the press conference about Abu Ali’s case last Friday:

The AG claims he is upholding the ‘rule of law’. Our question is what rule of law is he talking about? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a racist prosecutor to use race in jury selection? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a prosecutor to be dishonest? Is he talking about a rule that says our criminal justice system cannot correct a grave error? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK to inflict cruel and unusual punishment? Is he talking about a rule that says a district attorney general is not to gain justice, but rather he is to pursue a victory at any cost? Those are not our rules of law.

As citizens, we must impress upon Governor Lee that Tennessee’s death penalty cannot be trusted. These two cases bear witness to that fact. In the interest of truth and justice, all executions must be stopped in Tennessee so that our state can take a long, hard look at the current process, examining it from top to bottom. A comprehensive, independent analysis of this system must be conducted before any other person is put to death in Tennessee. Justice demands nothing less.


So Many Questions

It has been a week since Don Johnson was executed. The question of whether or not Governor Lee would grant clemency hung over us in Tennessee until late into the afternoon on Tuesday, May 14. Then the answer came, “No.”

So many of us, including Don’s stepdaughter Cynthia Vaughn, whose mother, Connie, was the victim of Don’s crime, pled for mercy. His church family at Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church prayed for mercy, holding a prayer service a week ago Saturday in front of the State Capitol, asking Governor Lee to consider Don’s transformation in prison, a transformation made possible through Don’s Christian faith.

There were questions about what it would take to convince the governor to act on Don’s behalf. There was tension and stress, and even disagreement about what we should do as the state moved towards this execution. Cynthia, whose journey to forgive Don had taken her decades, was getting more and more questions. She was publicly pitted against her own brother, who just days before the execution, came out in support of it.

Voices on social media became more agitated and in some cases, meaner, the closer we got to the date. Those who loved and visited Don on death row became more desperate. Don’s attorneys worked night and day to stop this execution. Nerves were frayed, and emotions raw.

For all the questions that surround the death penalty, the question of what it does to us becomes obvious as any execution approaches, regardless of whether we support it or oppose it. The death penalty ties us in knots. It stokes our fears and our baser instincts. It teases and torments. It kills, but not only the inmates. Every time an execution occurs, no matter if we question it or justify it, part of us dies too.

Don’s execution demonstrated once again the emptiness of this ritual.

Don was not an unremorseful person who denied his involvement in his wife’s murder or blamed others for what he did. He acknowledged his role, took responsibility, and offered a public apology. He was ready to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars for his actions. He didn’t ask for freedom.

Don wasn’t angry at the world, the corrections staff, or the governor, though he could have been. Don was a man changed by the love he came to know through his encounter with Jesus Christ behind prison walls and that love made him new. Don was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church twenty years ago, ministered to inmates and folks on the outside, and served as a light on the inside, even refusing a special last meal and asking that those living on the streets be fed instead. Don’s life since his incarceration didn’t fit the stereotype. Who was “the monster” in this story?

Governor Lee made the decision to allow Don’s execution to proceed. Don accepted the decision. Don’s ultimate faith was in God and not in the governor anyway, though he had hoped for a different outcome. It wasn’t to be.

And so another question, “What has changed?”

Don Johnson is dead. Connie Johnson is dead. Correctional staff, attorneys, communities of faith, friends, media witnesses, even members of Connie’s family are now likely traumatized by what we did on May 16, whether they know it or not. Are the scales of justice finally balanced now?

And what about our state? Are we better off?

How did Don’s execution make us safer?

How did it help to prevent future crimes?

Did anyone gain better access to mental and behavioral health care because of Don’s execution?

Did Don’s death offer any avenues for more and better intervention in the lives of children who are exposed to horrible trauma and abuse as he was?

Did one more police officer or correctional officer receive better training or an increase in pay?

Did Don’s death help Cynthia to heal?

Did it address the division in Connie’s family?

Did it make death row safer for correctional staff and inmates?

Did it model respect for the dignity of life?

These are some of the questions that I am left with a week later. And though I don’t pretend that the issue isn’t complicated, I don’t think the answers to these questions are.

For now, though, we will likley go on pretending that we don’t know these answers because if we admit that we do, we would have to end the death penalty.

But the questions aren’t going away. We will keep asking them over and over again. And more people will join us and start asking these questions too as they learn how broken and morally bankrupt the death penalty system really is.

Questions and more questions and more questions until those with the power to stop these executions decide to give us honest answers. Until then, we will keep asking.

Photo from Saturday, May 11, Prayer Service 


Test the DNA: Sedley Alley’s Daughter Deserves to Know the Truth

Today, April Alley, the daughter of Sedley Alley, announced that she is petitioning the Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis for post-conviction DNA testing of the evidence in her father’s case. Ms. Alley is also asking Governor Bill Lee to use his executive authority to order DNA testing of the untested evidence.

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in 2006 after he was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins. DNA evidence from the crime scene was not tested in 1985 and has never been tested. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and Vanessa Potkin, post-conviction litigation director for the Innocence Project, represent Ms. Alley.

A press conference with April Alley, Barry Scheck, and Vanessa Potkin was held today in Nashville to inform the public about this petition. Sabrina Butler Smith and Ray Krone, death row exonerees and members of Witness to Innocence, also spoke. Both Mr. Krone and Mrs. Butler Smith now live in Tennessee and frequently share their stories of wrongful conviction through TADP’s Sharing Our Stories program. Paul House and his mother Joyce, had hoped to be in attendance today, but Mr. House was unable to attend because of his health. He developed multiple sclerosis on Tennessee’s death row, which went untreated for many years. Mr. House was released after nearly 23 years on death row after DNA evidence demonstrated that he was wrongfully convicted.  

Tennessee Federal Defender Kelley Henry, who worked on Sedley Alley’s case before his execution, as well as Tennessee attorney Stephen Ross Johnson were also on hand to speak about this case and the lingering questions of innocence that could be resolved if the DNA is tested. 

Ms. Alley, the executor of her father’s estate, broke down at the conference as she tried to speak. Her request is simple: to find out   the truth by testing the DNA. Every Tennessean should want to know the truth in this case, including the Shelby County DA’s office and the governor. 

“There has never been a full and fair hearing on Mr. Alley’s guilt or innocence. This case has all the tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction – a confession that has been demonstrated to be false by objective forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, and, most disturbing, the refusal to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Alley or removed the doubts about his guilt,” said Mr. Scheck.

In 2006, on the eve of Mr. Alley’s execution, the Tennessee Board of Parole recommended that then-Governor Bredesen stay Mr. Alley’s execution and order DNA testing. Instead of exercising his power to order DNA testing, the governor directed Mr. Alley’s defense team to present their request for testing to the Tennessee court

Many items of evidence were presented for testing, including men’s red underwear that the police believed was worn by the murderer found near the victim’s body. Then-available DNA testing might have excluded Mr. Alley as the perpetrator or provided a match with another man in the CODIS DNA database. The Tennessee courts incorrectly ruled that Mr. Alley was not entitled to DNA testing, even if the testing could produce a match to a third party with a history of committing similar offenses. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly overruled Mr. Alley’s case in State v. Powers and clarified that Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA statute intended to allow a defendant to prove innocence by comparing DNA from a defendant to DNA from other potentially guilty people, including hits from the CODIS DNA databank.

Barry Scheck reiterated at today’s press conference, “The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA. If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the Powers ruling and the plain language of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.”

The Petition for post-conviction DNA relief details how a reinvestigation of the case over the years has shown that the evidence against Mr. Alley was weak.

For example, Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false. Key details in Mr. Alley’s statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence. For instance, Mr. Alley’s confession states that he hit the victim with his car. Autopsy records show that Ms. Collins was not hit by a car. Mr. Alley’s confession states that he stabbed Ms. Collins in the head with a screwdriver. Autopsy records show that she was not stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Mr. Alley told his daughter that he was coerced into confessing. He was highly intoxicated on the night of the crime, had no recollection of committing the crime, and did not believe he had done it.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts do not match Mr. Alley. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s car. Recovered shoe prints were not from Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described that man as 5’ 6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-long hair, and a light complexion. 

The Innocence Project began looking for evidence in this case again because they recently received a tip from law enforcement that someone who was indicted for a brutal murder and sexual assault in another state might be the actual perpetrator in the Alley case. This person went to the same military school as the Tennessee victim in the time leading up to the crime. There is also evidence about a jilted boyfriend who was an alternate suspect. 

The media is covering this announcement and we will get you more information as it become available. If you want to learn more about this case, read the New York Times piece that was published today.

Share the story on Facebook and Tweet about it with the hashtag #TesttheDNA



Cynthia Vaughn Asks for Mercy for the Man Convicted of Killing Her Mother

The Tennessean recently published an op-ed by Cynthia Vaughn, in which she asks that her stepfather, Don Johnson, be spared the death penalty on May 16th. Don was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Cynthia’s mother, Connie, when Cynthia was only seven years old. For most of her life, Cynthia wanted to see Don executed.

In the op-ed, Cynthia shares her painful journey from fervently supporting Don’s execution to advocating for his clemency. She reflects on the freedom that she experienced in forgiving him as well as her fears about the additional trauma his execution will likely inflict on her.

She writes, “After being trapped in the death penalty process for most of my life and finally receiving some peace, I now face more trauma and loss. Over these past few years, Don has become one of my last connections to my mother, and his execution will not feel like justice to me. It will feel like losing my mother all over again. I want to save his life.”

Please consider joining with Cynthia in asking Governor Lee to spare Don Johnson. You can take action and learn more about this incredible story here. 

TAKE ACTION: Contact Governor Lee and Urge Clemency for Don Johnson

Don Johnson is scheduled to be executed by the state of Tennessee on May 16, 2019, for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie, in Memphis. Connie’s daughter, Cynthia, is a frequent speaker for TADP’s Sharing Our Stories program and is asking Governor Lee to spare Don’s life. Over the past thirty-five years, Don has embraced the Christian faith and become a model inmate. He is a force for good on death row and shares his faith with others, in prison, in the community, and around the world. 

Don profoundly hurt Cynthia, his stepdaughter, by taking her mother’s life when Cynthia was only seven years old. For years, Cynthia had hoped for Don’s execution, but, in 2012, all that changed. She visited Don on death row to tell him how much he had hurt her and to unleash her full anger. Her intent for the visit was to “let him have it,” and then leave.

And though Cynthia boiled over with rage at Don, after she had the opportunity to tell him all the things that she needed to say, she heard a voice speak to her, “Let it go.”  In that moment, Cynthia forgave Don and found that with forgiveness, came her own freedom. Cynthia asks that Governor Lee do the same and spare Don’s life. 

Today Governor Lee received Don’s official request for a commutation of his death sentence.

Please visit Don Johnson’s clemency website and take action now on his behalf. 


Photo from