Finding forgiveness on death row

By Amanda Haggard, portrait photos by Linda Bailey

This article first appeared in The Contributor, USA. It was a finalist in the INSP Awards 2015.

In a powerful story about redemptive forgiveness, The Contributor interviews a woman who is reconciling her mother’s death at the hands of her father.


Cynthia Vaughn (above) arises each morning with a full day in front of her. Vaughn is a mother of three who works as a full-time police dispatcher in a Memphis suburb. She’s also attending Northwest Mississippi Community College to become a social worker, and she pulls shifts at a second part-time job at a gas station. She crawls out of bed at 4:30 a.m., and depending on whether she has to go to her second job at Circle K, she can be home as late as 10:30 p.m. Needless to say, she often spends more time away from her home than in it.

Her father, Don Johnson (pictured below), who adopted Vaughn when she was less than 2 years old, spends his days much differently. He’s awakened every day around 5:30 a.m. in Unit 2 at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville. He rarely leaves his cell, gets three meals a day. And at 9 p.m., it’s lights out. Johnson spends much of that time in prayer.

He is one of 11 death-row inmates with execution dates in the state of Tennessee. Johnson and the other 10 inmates are involved in a complex court battle with the state regarding secrecy surrounding execution protocol and the constitutionality of the electric chair, which Tennessee’s legislature brought back in a controversial decision earlier this year.


Vaughn was 7 years old when her father was convicted of murdering her 30-year-old mother, Connie Johnson, just three weeks before Christmas in 1984. Vaughn, now 37, remembers her mother dropping her off at the babysitter’s house on Dec. 8. Vaughn recalls Johnson coming that evening to tell her and her brother that their mother had “gone to live with the angels” before he was arrested, she said.

“And the next thing I remember is all of my aunts and grandmother talking in low whispers,” Vaughn said. “They told me to leave the room when a television broadcast came on, but I still remember hearing them-the people on the news-and wondering: ‘Why are they saying my daddy killed my mama?’ Then I was sent to live with one of my mom’s sisters, and from then on out, it was very hard.”

Left in the aftermath of his arrest and subsequent death-penalty conviction, Vaughn found her childhood in Tunica, Miss., very difficult.

“This was Tunica before the casinos,” she said. “Nothing was private. Everyone knew my story. This was the kind of town that if you checked the mail in your pajamas, your phone would ring as soon as you walked in the house asking why you were outside in your night gown.”

“I wanted him to know what our childhood was like; what it’s like to be the daughter of a death-row inmate who killed his wife.”

Skip ahead to 2006. Vaughn hears on television that Johnson has an execution date. Two decades had passed since she last saw her father. She decided then and there to face him finally.

“My brother and I – he was 4 when my mama was killed – didn’t have the best childhood ever, and I wanted him to know about it,” Vaughn said. “I got denied by the prison: They told me that since I was also the victim’s daughter that it created conflict. I was crushed.”

In 2006, the state did not execute Johnson, who is now in his mid-60s with graying hair and slumping figure. Six years later, in 2012, Vaughn said she received a phone call “out of the blue.”

Riverbend Prison wanted to let her in to see her father.

“I had a list of things I wanted to say,” Vaughn said. “I accepted the invitation to come and I went up there with the mindset of going off on him and letting him know how he affected my life in all these terrible ways, and I did that. I wanted him to know what our childhood was like; what it’s like to be the daughter of a death-row inmate who killed his wife.”

But when Vaughn got there, she was surprised by a feeling that came over her when she looked into her father’s eyes as he listened to her explain her hatred and anger.

“It just came over me that I couldn’t keep hating him,” Vaughn said. “And I realized that my hatred wasn’t affecting him. It didn’t, and wouldn’t ever, change what happened. I told him that day I forgave him. I said: ‘I can’t keep hating you. I forgive you.’ He started crying.”

“My adopted daughter came to tell me off, but she ended up forgiving me instead.”

Johnson remembers that day, too.

“My adopted daughter came in 2012 to tell me off, but she ended up forgiving me instead,” Johnson said. “She said she didn’t come in here to forgive me.”

In correspondence with The Contributor, Johnson said his daughter told him she had hated him her entire life. It stung.

“But as she was in here talking to me, she said she realized I wasn’t making excuses [for how hard her life was],” Johnson said. “And [she saw] that I looked her in the eye when she talked to me. So something changed… and she realized she wanted to forgive me.”

After deciding to forgive her father, she had questions.

“I just basically wanted to know the little things that kids know already about their mama,” Vaughn said. “What kind of perfume did she wear? What kind of car did she drive? What kind of movies did she like? What was her favorite band? What were her hobbies? What kind of mom was she? You find yourself questioning every little thing when your mama was not around.”

Something else surprised Vaughn when she left the prison: She felt compelled to turn to God for the first time in years.

“There’s that saying that people find Jesus in a jail cell,” Vaughn said. “Well, I did too, just not in the same way.”

She started praying daily and attending church.

“The murder consumed me at many points of my life,” Vaughn said. “It was all I thought about every moment that there was a free moment outside of work and taking care of my kids and homework. It was all about him and her and what happened. But the way I handled my pain changed dramatically after that visit with my dad.”

Johnson said people often “conjure up the image of Charles Manson” when they think of death-row inmates. “That’s not us,” he said. “There was a group of preachers who came in here who said they were apprehensive before coming in, but they said they saw the love of God in our eyes. They said, ‘We didn’t expect this.’”

Moving Beyond the Death Penalty

Vaughn said she thinks the state’s focus should turn away from the death penalty and executions to support for the people that the crimes left behind. She recounts the passing of her father’s several execution dates – he’s had more than three since 2012 alone.

“My problem with the death penalty is that every so many years the inmate gets an execution date and it throws the families into a complete and total whirlwind: It’s driving me crazy,” Vaughn said. “And then they always get a stay of execution and then it lasts another seven years, and then by the time I’m able to get back to normal life-I mean, I’ll always be a victim’s family member-they’ll put another date on it, and I become the death-row inmate’s daughter again.”

After 30 years of watching her father sit on death row, she has serious doubts that the execution will ever actually take place.

“I really don’t know where I stand morally and ethically when it comes to just straight-up death penalty,” Vaughn said. “It’s not so black and white, cut and dry to me. I do know that they can’t keep messing with families this way. It seems like there’s always a focus on justice and execution and not on how to better our relationships and community.”


Vaughn still has a lot of questions about her mother’s life, and often thinks about how her life may have been completely different if not for one tragic day in 1984. After their reconciliation, Don Johnson couldn’t give his daughter her mother back or the 30 years she spent wondering, but there was one thing he could do for her:
Connie wore Chanel No. 5.
Her first car was a ‘73 Ford Torino.
She enjoyed romantic comedies.
She loved The Rolling Stones.
She reveled in country cooking.

“And he told me she was just the best mom ever,” Vaughn said.