Tag Archive: Death Penalty

Should Religiously Motivated Good Behavior Play a Part in Sentencing, Commutation, Clemency, or Parole?

donnie johnson

Seventh-day Adventist minister Donnie Johnson

In 1984, Donnie Johnson brutally murdered his wife by stuffing a 30-gallon trash bag down her throat until she suffocated. The Commerical Appeal reported last week:

More than a year and a half before her death, Connie Johnson had purchased a life insurance policy with Donnie Johnson as primary beneficiary, according to legal documents. After Connie Johnson’s death, both Donnie Johnson and a sister made claims for $50,000.

In 1984, Donnie Johnson was working at Force Camping Center in Memphis. Connie Johnson had worked there too until about 18 months before her death, according to a newspaper article, when she decided to stop because her daughter was entering school.

It was there that Donnie Johnson killed his wife, suffocating her by shoving a plastic bag down her throat. A Shelby County medical examiner said during the trial that she had cuts and bruises on her head, that she bled internally and had fought back.

“There was testimony that she would have been conscious during the terrifying ordeal and that from one to four minutes would have elapsed before she expired,” wrote Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Harbison in an opinion affirming the judgement of the trial court. “The homicide was inhuman and brutal to an almost indescribable degree.”

Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death. He is scheduled for execution this Thursday.

Thirty years ago, Jimmy Pitt started a Seventh-day Adventist Bible study at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Johnson was one of his converts (1985). Johnson later became a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and currently leads Bible studies at the prison and ministers to other inmates who are on death row.

Now that Johnson’s date for meeting the Grim Reaper is approaching, several Christian zealots have been working hard to keep the convicted murderer alive. Why? He is a new man in Christ Jesus. That’s right. J-e-s-u-s, the man, myth, and legend, who purportedly washes all sins away through his blood. Never mind the fact that the Bible says several times that murderers shall NOT inherit the kingdom of God. Mustn’t let the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God get in the way of a feel-good story; a story of redemption.

Furman F. Fordham II, pastor of Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Church in Nashville, Tennessee, told the Tennessean:

He [convicted murderer Donnie Johnson] has been leading and serving in such a way that what he’s doing in there is the exact kind of ministry that we would definitely ordain someone for out here.

I was accustomed to being at different churches where you’d have a prison ministry, but I had never seen one of the prisoners leading it. We were his assistants.

The wife of the late Jimmy Pitt said of Johnson:

Don is one of those people that is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he will share that with any and everybody that gives him an opportunity.

I used to be fairly set on if you did the crime, you pay the price. I really would love for him to get clemency of some sort because there’s always forgiveness.

Pastor Fordham believes Johnson should be spared due to his decades-long religious transformation:

Transformation is real. This is a new gentlemen. He just is. And I think that there should be room for that caveat to be considered and I think that is why in our state constitution the governor can press pause.

Should jailhouse conversion be grounds for sentence commutation, clemency, or parole?  Would a Muslim, atheist, humanist, witch, or pagan inmate be afforded the same opportunities? How many death row inmates have Pastor Fordham and his merry band of Christians advocated for in the past? Or is their advocacy predicated on Johnson being on their team?

I am a pacifist. On principle, I oppose the death penalty, period. That said, when Governors and parole boards are considering sentence commutation, clemency, or parole, there should be a strict separation of church and state. Religious conversion is quite easy to fake. What’s the empirical standard by which to judge whether someone is “really” a born-again, saved-by-the-blood Christian? Can their good works ever ameliorate the brutality of their crimes?

I support the commutation of Donnie Johnson’s sentence, but not because he is a super-duper, oh-so-awesome Christian. He could be a Muslim terrorist for all I care, or a Baptist. I oppose state-sanctioned murder, be it in prison kill houses or on the battlefields in the Middle East. That the followers of Jesus can’t come to such a conclusion is, in my opinion, astounding and in direct contradiction to what the Bible teaches on the matter.

Johnson’s son, Jason, sees his devoutly religious father in different light, saying: “He’s an evil human being. He can talk Christianity and all that. “That is all my father is. That’s all he’s ever been, is a con man.”

pastor david richards jr

David Richards Jr, pastor of My Father’s House Church of God in Lenoir City, Tennessee.

Sometimes, judges let convicted criminals off easy because of their supposed love for JESUS before they committed their crimes. Take David Richards Jr, pastor of My Father’s House Church of God in Lenoir City, Tennessee. Richards was convicted of repeatedly raping his 14-year-old daughter. Prosecutors argued the severity and heinous nature of the crimes deserved a minimum of seventy-two years in prison, but the judge thought otherwise and gave Richards a 12-year prison sentence. Judge Steven Sword defended his light sentence by extolling all the good things Richards did in the community, including starting a Bible study while in jail awaiting trial. Again, would a “good” atheist, Muslim, humanist, or pagan receive similar treatment?

Sword gave Richards this sentence, even after hearing him refuse to take responsibility for his crimes. Instead, Johnson blamed his daughter:

I stand before you convicted of crimes I did not commit. I simply believe the system just erred in this case. I’m not sure why I’m here. . . but I assume it’s for His [the Christian God’s] purpose.

The Knoxville News reports:

David Richards took the stand in his own defense, painting his accuser as a defiant teenager who first made her allegations of sexual abuse amid his attempts to impose strict rules for his children.

Forensics found Richards’ semen on the victim’s bed frame, leaving little doubt that he was guilty. Jurors agreed, convicting Richards on nine felony counts, including rape, incest and sexual battery by an authority figure.

David Thompson, Richards’ fellow pastor at My Father’s House, doesn’t believe he’s guilty:

I find it impossible for me to believe he’s guilty of this. His business needs him. His family needs him. Our church needs him.

In fact, over thirty fellow church members packed the courthouse to show their love and resolute support Richards.

How do we explain their continued support of Richards even after hearing testimony that put Richards’ penis in the vicinity of the victim’s bed? Some reports have suggested that Richards’ daughter was “rebellious,” and this necessarily proves she is lying or trying to get even with her father. However, the knowledge that My Father’s House is a Fundamentalist Christian congregation should cause anyone buying this argument to ponder for a moment the fact that “rebellion” in such congregations is defined very differently from the way in which the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world define it. As former inmates at Baptist group homes such as New Bethany or Roloff Homes can attest, rebellion was defined as any act of disobedience, including skipping church, not reading the Bible or praying, going to movies, smoking, drinking beer, having sex, or listening to rock music. I suspect that the victim’s “rebellion” is far different from the behaviors that land teens in criminal detention centers. Whatever it might have been, it must be viewed through the lens of his or her religious background. And even then, her supposed bad behavior should play no part in discussions about her father’s crimes. That some of Richards’ fellow Christians are bringing the victim’s ill-behavior up suggests that they are straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel in hopes of finding justification for their unwillingness to believe their pastor could be a rapist. Can anyone say cognitive dissonance?

The victim, Amber Richards, had this to say about her father:

I wanted to throw my body away. Not a day goes by that I don’t, in some way, think of what he did to me. . . I firmly believe if given the opportunity, he would victimize another young girl.

Too bad thirty-plus members of My Father’s House and their pastor David Thompson didn’t hear a word Amber Richards had to say.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Anne Reed thinks Craving a Milky Way is the Same as a Gay Man Craving Sexual Intimacy

homosexuality an abomination

Snark Ahead. You’ve Been Warned!

Anne Reed is a staff writer for the American Family Association (AFA). AFA is a fundamentalist Christian ministry started in 1977 by Methodist minister Don Wildmon. Wildmon’s son Tim now runs the operation. In order to write accurate, timely articles, I must monitor the ruminations of the religious-right. I don’t like doing so, but it is a necessary part of my job. Every day, I must wade through hundreds of articles that I consider racist, bigoted, conspiratorial, or bat-shit crazy. Thus, I subscribe to AFA’s newsletter, The Stand.

Anne Reed  thinks the government should regulate homosexuality because Michelle Obama is concerned about childhood obesity and has used the power of  government to change how children eat at a school. In her mind, gay sex should be regulated just like school lunches. I can see your face now. Huh, there is no connection between these two things?  Remember Reed is a fundamentalist. Reason and logic are not her strong suit.

Here’s what she had to say:

…CDCP has also reported a wealth of reliable and disturbing facts about the effects of homosexual behaviors, particularly among males. Gay and bisexual men represent only about two percent of the U.S. population but accounted for three-fourths of all estimated new HIV infections annually from 2008 to 2010. Wow! That is an extreme and unmistakable health risk associated with homosexual behavior.

In 2010, the same year the Let’s Move campaign kicked off, African American men accounted for more than double the number of estimated new infections in other ethnic groups. And young African American gay and bisexual males ages 13 to 24 are especially affected by HIV.  But where’s the compassion for these young men? Where’s the determination to bring about necessary lifestyle changes?

And somehow President Obama expresses no concern for those who wish to change that extremely risky behavior. Rather, he wants to model decisions made in California, New Jersey, and DC banning licensed professionals from offering and providing conversion therapy for minors who seek to change their same-sex attractions and behavior.

While gluttony, laziness, and ignorance can certainly lead to a life of disease and early death, so can misguided sexual desires. This is clear. If the Obamas really understand and care about the importance of teaching a child correct behaviors at an early age when it comes to nutrition and exercise, why is the concept inapplicable when it concerns damaging sexual cravings and behaviors?

Have you ever watched a movie scene where one actor withheld a helping hand from another whose grip was slipping from the edge of a tower or building? It goes against everything we know to be right and good. We don’t just let somebody fall into a pit of destruction when it’s within our power to help.


First
, let me say that Anne Reed is being disingenuous. As a Christian fundamentalist and a political right-winger, Reed doesn’t want the government regulating anything. Well, execpt the “sins” listed in the Bible, then she wants the government to be a terror to evil and an executor of wrath on those who do evil.

Second, being gay is not a choice. Evidently, Reed thinks a person chooses to be gay just like she chooses a bag of potato chips at the local store.

Third, the students eating lunch are CHILDREN and parents, school boards, and government has a vested interest in making sure children eat a nutritious lunch. How a gay has sex is determined by attraction, preference, and desire. Surely Reed knows that heterosexuals have anal and oral sex too?  Those engaging in gay sex are consenting teenagers and adults. They are mature enough to make rational sexual choices. Children, with immature minds, would choose to have a lunch of candy bars, Captain Crunch, and ice cream. For a beverage Pepsi wins over milk every time. Since we know many children aren’t ready to make responsible eating choices, adults make the choice for them. Gays do not need help choosing who to have sex with.

Fourth, yes HIV does affect the gay population far more than it does the heterosexual population, But, it DOES affect the heterosexual population, so using Reed’s illogical logic, should heterosexual sex be regulated or forbidden? After all, it would keep heterosexuals from getting HIV.

According to the CDC, there are about 50,000 new HIV infections each year. One out of every 300 Americans is infected with HIV. Compare this to one out of ten Americans having diabetes. It seems to me that Reed should be writing about the diabetes epidemic that is ravaging the Christian church. Perhaps the government should step in and ban church potlucks and ban churches with bus ministries from giving out candy to riders. Think of the children, Anne!!

Fifth, the overwhelming majority of sexually transmitted diseases are contracted by white, Christian heterosexuals.  Again, using Reed’s illogical logic, shouldn’t Christianity and heterosexual sex be strictly regulated or forbidden? We know that Evangelical and conservative Christian churches often given the sexually active horrible advice about sex and birth control. Perhaps Baptist youth groups should be banned because of their promotion of “just say no.”  Doesn’t “just say no” encourage sexual irresponsibility, resulting in a loss of virginity, STD’s, and unplanned pregnancies?

It took me all of a few hundred words to strip Anne Reed naked and expose the bigotry and hate that lies behind her beliefs. It’s not about public policy or what is best for children. Reed’s God, in an inspired, inerrant, infallible work of fiction, has decreed that homosexuality and same-sex marriage is an abomination. This same God, in the same book, said that homosexuals should be executed. Of course, he also thought adulterers and fornicators should be executed too. Man, that sure would drastically reduce church attendance numbers, wouldn’t it? Imagine God killing every adulterous, fornicating Baptist. Why, I know some IFB churches that would have to close their doors. Their pulpits would certainly be empty if God got all righteous and killed adulterers and fornicators.

Let me end this post with three comments left on Reed’s article by loving, concerned Christians:

“Thanks Anne Reed for a brave attempt at juxtaposing M. Obama’s “Let’s Move” program with the proliferating spread of HIV among, of all things, gay and bisexual men. Hmm…this data from the CDC obviously cannot be examined critically by anyone in the Obama administration because that would be tantamount to exposing the skeletons in homosexuals’ closets. This administration makes the rules, changes the rules as necessary to reap the greatest amount of political gain, and then shushes anyone who challenges the rules.” (Bruce has one comment: So HIV infections started when the Kenyan-born Muslim atheist socialist Obama took office)

“There is also alarming stats that have recently been released on the “transgendered” community with articles such as this: “High HIV burden identified in transgender women,” Baral S. Lancet Infect Dis. 2013;13:214-222; Correlates of HIV Infection Among Transfemales, San Francisco, 2010: Results From a Respondent-Driven Sampling Study, American Journal of Public Health, August 2013. There are also mental health issues that can be associated with this lifestyle: Anxiety and Depression in Transgender Individuals: The Roles of Transition Status, Loss, Social Support, and Coping, Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, June 2013.” (Bruce has one comment: Transgender individuals have anxiety and depression? Shock. I wonder why? Looking at you AFA)

“God says that He gives the Homosexual who in the heart and mind reject what is good for what is evil over time giving them over to a reprobate mind to not know the difference since they do not care ! And God gives them a just recompense in the flesh ! Perhaps a memo to their flesh to not mind what is bad nor differentiate that which is bad from what is good as they desired mentally they receive physically as well – Auto – Immune Dificiency Syndrome?” (Bruce has one comment: Sounds to me like HIV and homosexuality is God’s fault. After all, isn’t he the one giving them over to a reprobate mind?)

It’s Time to End the Death Penalty in Ohio

letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor of the Defiance Crescent-News, submitted on March 18, 2015

Dear Editor,

It’s time for Ohio legislators to put an end to the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 2003, 20 Ohio inmates have been removed from death row “through exonerations, clemency, or sentence reductions because of intellectual disabilities.” In December 2014, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer testified before  the House Criminal Justice Committee. Justice Pfeifer stated “The death penalty in Ohio has become what I call a death lottery…It’s very difficult to conclude that the death penalty, as it exists today, is anything but a bad gamble. That’s really not how a criminal justice system should work.”

Currently, Ohio legislators are working on bills that would prohibit the execution of those with severe mental illness, create an indigent defense fund, require crime labs and coroners to be certified, and prohibit the execution of anyone convicted solely on the testimony of jail house snitch. While these are great steps in the right direction, it is time for Ohio to altogether abolish the death penalty.

As Justice Pfeifer rightly noted, the death penalty has become a death lottery. Those of means have the ability to hire competent defense attorneys, often resulting in the death penalty being taken off the table. The poor, who can’t afford to hire an attorney, must rely on proper representation from a public defender. In many rural areas, the poor are often assigned an attorney with little capital case experience. While many public defenders do a great job defending indigent clients, there are times when they are not up to the task, lacking the necessary skill and time to adequately defend their client.

When a person’s life hangs in the balance, they deserve competent, aggressive representation. Attorneys who defend an indigent client are paid a pathetic fee and must often wait for months or years to be reimbursed by the state. If we are going to continue to use execution as the means to punish those convicted of a capital crime, then it is morally imperative that we make sure that those facing death have the same access to attorneys, expert witnesses, and crime labs, regardless of their ability to pay.

Currently, 140 men and 1 woman are awaiting execution in Ohio. Due to controversy over the drugs used  in lethal injections, it is unlikely that there will be any executions until 2016. I would encourage Ohio legislators to use this time to find a way to bring an end to executions.

Killing someone because they committed a crime is rooted in the barbaric eye for an eye justice of the Old Testament. While many Christian sects now oppose the death penalty, Evangelicals and conservative Christians continue to demand death for those convicted of a capital crime. I ask, what happened to following in the footsteps of Jesus? Would Jesus, the Prince of Peace, approve of a criminal system that disproportionately punishes the poor and people of color? If Evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, would get behind abolishing the death penalty, we can end this abhorrent practice.

Bruce Gerencser
Ney, Ohio