Fellowship of

Reflections on the Pending Execution of Jim Johnson

P.O. Box 268
Columbia, Missouri
email: jstack@coin.org

    Reflections on the Pending Execution of Jim Johnson
    from Jeff Stack

    Greetings in the New Year, hopefully one of greater enlightenment and caring!

    Rep. Vicky Riback-Wilson (D-Columbia) plans to file a bill to abolish the death penalty appropriately on Tuesday, 8 January.

    The bill will be filed as state officials continue with their grotesque preparations to kill Jim Johnson in the opening moments of Wednesday morning. There's no doubt Johnson killed Les Roark, Charles Smith, Sandra Wilson and Pam Jones (the first three sheriff deputies). All the murders are contemptible, yet so too is the premeditated state killing of any human being.

    As Phil Ochs, the folk musician sang decades ago, "Every man (one) has got something to give, and if a man can give, then a man should live."

    Please thank Rep. Wilson (573-751-1169) for her ongoing leadership for abolition and extend thanks to the co-sponsors (identified so far at the time of this posting. They are) Reps. Bill Boucher (D-KC, 751-7335), Derio Gambaro (D-St. Louis, 751-4220) and Maida Coleman (D-St. Louis, 751-2606).

    Please ask Gov. Bob Holden to commute Jim Johnson's death sentence. Call 573-751-3222.

    Attend one or more of the vigils around the state, opposing the execution of Jim Johnson. Call 573-449-4585 for details, or check our homepage or the website for the Eastern Missouri Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

    On Thursday, 3 January, I visited at the capitol for a half hour with a public official (who shall remain nameless, only because I failed to ask his permission to be mentioned in these reflections). He notes he's known Jim Johnson since childhood. Among other things they sang together in church choir. Within the past year, he says he gratefully had the chance to visit with Jim in the chapel of the Potosi prison, where Jim has worked for several years as an assistant to the chaplain. It seems that he had settled in well into institutional life and has made the best of his limited options.

    He calls the violence that Jim unleashed upon Moniteau County in 1991 "aberrant" behavior, extremely uncharacteristic of who Jim is. A supporter of the death penalty at least in limited situations, this man doesn't think that Jim should have received "death" for killing the four people. He points out Jim has no prior criminal record, there is little or no chance he would kill again. A life sentence, he asserts would have been more appropriate. Jim could continue contributing in prison as he has.

    I second his assertion, concurring that Jim is an exceptional individual. Still, I point out that over the years, I have met with a few dozen families and friends of men ultimately executed. Most could speak of redeeming characteristics residing within the men, whether or not they had a criminal record. It's easy to support executing a fiend, known only two-dimensionally through the media as the perpetrator of vile actions. It becomes much more difficult to support killing individuals we recognize as the human beings they are.

    The gentleman mentions Moniteau County residents are still quite torn about the notion of state officials killing Jim Johnson. He feels it is false hope to believe, as family and friends of those slain might think, that they will gain a sense of closure with Jim's death. Many area residents, he adds, feel great sadness knowing that his death will be horribly traumatic for his elderly mother, Mary Johnson. She committed no crime, yet she has been and will continue to be punished for her son's actions and the state's planned reaction.

    For a few days I had been contemplating traveling to California, a community about 27 miles west of Jefferson City. The Jeff City conversation made the trip feel essential for extending support. After a couple minutes in town, I find Mary Johnson's address then find myself at the door of her duplex. What can I say to someone preparing to say 'goodbye' forever to a healthy son about to be unnaturally, put to death? There was no answer to my knock at her door. But there was some stirring about at the apartment next door. An older woman pushes open slightly the outer door. I make my way gingerly to her front door, apologizing for stepping on the grass. Gruffly, the older woman said, "Yes, what are doing ruining my lawn?" I tried to ratchet up the sincerity of my apology. Ruth (I'll omit her last name for this mass e-mailing and web-posting) grins, chuckles, "Oh, don't worry about it." I introduce myself and note I had come to offer my support-on behalf of many other people as well-- to Mary and other loved ones of Jim. She insists Mary will be sorry she missed me and very grateful of my stopping by. I give her my calling card; she suspects her friend will likely call me back. Ruth warns me she's been getting over the flu, but says I'm welcome to come in if I want to chance my good health.

    It was well worth the risk. Mary certainly needs and deserves support, Ruth notes. At 6:00 this morning, her church's minister and her traveled to the Potosi prison to visit with Jim during one of her last opportunities to be with her son. Ruth laments Jim is really all Mary has to live for. She does also have one other son who doesn't come around very much. Ruth notes she herself has been blessed with four kids, a couple dozen grand kids and a half-dozen great grandchildren. She proudly lets me look through a scrapbook given by her family celebrating her 80th birthday. For Mary, there are fortunately at least a support group of neighbors, Ruth notes. Each night she drops by to visit with Mary. Her Baptist minister has also been making daily visits for months (She jokingly wonders if Mary's daily gifting of a pie got the preacher traveling there routinely). Three other women, also widowed, live nearby and frequently get together. Mary's husband died while Jim was incarcerated under the death sentence.

    Mary and Ruth have been neighbors for 12 years. In fact the two of them were out walking early in the morning just hours after the December 1992 shootings, when Ruth recalls they came upon police officers urging them to get off the streets. A killer was loose somewhere in the California area. The planned killing of Jim Johnson, she says, is however, just as deliberate and vile as anything he did.

    I begin driving north along Highway 87, the route Jim Johnson routinely traveled from his home near Kliever. Realizing I had some unfinished reflections to share, I return to California. It takes a few more minutes but then I find the Moniteau County Sheriff's office. I offer my condolences to the workers over the lives senselessly taken a decade ago, recognizing the violence probably remains a very painful reality for area law-enforcement officials and for the whole community. One jailer with reddened eyes thanks me for the sentiment as does a deputy who shakes my hand. I mention while I condemn the shootings, I cannot support killing Jim Johnson. Matter-of-factly, the deputy, a woman says, "We just want it (the collective pain) to quiet down."

    I recall a bit earlier a hopeful, non-judgmental sign I saw posted on the lawn of the Moniteau courthouse lawn. Not adorned with any patriotic decoration, apparently referring to the so-called "War on Terrorism," the sign simply says, "Girl Scouts Want Peace."

    Please keep all our brothers and sisters (Jim, his mother, friends, loved ones of the four people slain, other community residents, all those) affected by the violence, in your thoughts and prayers as Jim Johnson's planned execution draws nearer. Hopefully, peace and compassion, not vengence and violence, will prevail.

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