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May, 2019

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.

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