How a Former Death Row Prisoner and a Murder Victim’s Daughter Joined Together To Fight the Death Penalty

In the official narrative of capital punishment, there are victims and there are victimizers. The reality is far more complicated.

Cynthia Vaughn, left, and Sabrina Butler after an event at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn. Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

If you ask Cynthia Vaughn and Sabrina Butler Smith how they met, there’s a good chance they’ll erupt in laughter. It’s not your typical funny story — not as awkward first encounters go. But it’s pretty epic.

“Tell it, Cynthia,” Sabrina says. “Take it away!”

“It was at this big church,” Cynthia begins. Somewhere in Memphis. The two of them had been invited to speak on a panel organized by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. They had never heard of one another — or so they had thought. “I’d seen the flyer and it hadn’t clicked yet,” Cynthia says. Sabrina giggles.

“We were sitting there getting ready to do everything,” Cynthia continues, “And they were introducing her. And they’re talking about how she was convicted.” Listening to the story and looking out at the audience, it suddenly dawned on Cynthia. “Ohhhhh,” she says, her eyes wide, her voice lowering to a dramatic whisper. “I remember this lady.”

Sabrina had once been notorious in Mississippi, where Cynthia grew up. Arrested in 1989 for killing her infant son, Walter, Sabrina swore she was innocent. But a nearly all-white jury sentenced her to die. She was only 19. After her conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, however, a second jury acquitted Sabrina in December 1995. She was the first woman ever exonerated from death row in the United States.

Losing both parents in a way most people couldn’t fathom, Cynthia had grown up filled with rage.

News of Sabrina’s release had enraged Cynthia, who had just graduated high school in 1995. As a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Cynthia had no patience for those who claimed their innocence, let alone death penalty opponents who had no clue about the system in real life. She did. Her mother, Connie Johnson, was murdered in Tennessee in 1984, when Cynthia was just 7 years old. Her stepfather was sentenced to die for the crime.

Losing both parents in a way most people couldn’t fathom, Cynthia had grown up filled with rage. It radiated beyond her stepfather and toward the world around her. She became a devoted member of pro-death penalty forums, often posting during her overnight shifts as a police dispatcher. “When we weren’t busy, I would be online arguing with anti-death penalty people,” she says. One of the cases that especially incensed her was Sabrina’s.

But in 2012, everything changed. Cynthia went to see her stepfather at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. She had planned to confront him with every ounce of anger that had built inside her since she was a child — and she did. But in spite of herself, she also found herself forgiving him. It transformed her whole life. Cynthia felt freer, happier, more present for her own children. A few years later, she gathered up the courage to tell her story publicly for the first time. The response was so positive, she kept telling it. And that’s how she found herself at the church in Memphis, side by side with a woman whom she once wanted dead.

After the panel ended that night, Cynthia went to look for Sabrina in the bathroom. “And I just bombarded her,” she says. “I was like, ‘Alright, look. You don’t know me. But I know you. And I’m sorry ’cause a long time ago, I said really bad things about you.’” Sabrina forgave her.

Today, Cynthia and Sabrina tell the story like old friends. Traveling across the state to speak against the death penalty, they have worked out a routine. “I tell her, ‘You go first,’” Sabrina says. “We fought about it for a long time,” Cynthia laughs, but she agreed that it made sense. The story she shares now is not just about her own ability to forgive her stepfather anymore; it’s about a deeper transformation, the kind that will be necessary to abolish the death penalty once and for all.

That work has taken on a new urgency recently. In the summer of 2018, Tennessee carried out its first execution in nearly a decade. By the end of the year, it had killed two more men on death row. Six more people are scheduled to die between this year and 2020. The next execution is set for May 16, 2019. The man scheduled for death is Don Johnson, Cynthia’s stepfather.


Donnie Johnson at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., in February.

Photo: Courtesy of Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry
After years of supporting his execution, Cynthia now desperately wants Johnson to live. She explained why at an event in February at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. It wasn’t just about forgiveness. Cynthia always craved knowledge about her mother growing up. For most of her life, she said, her mother was “like a character in a storybook,” one she could never fully picture. After recovering from the initial shock of forgiving her stepfather at the prison that day, Cynthia told Johnson, “Now you’re going to tell me things I want to know.” She asked basic questions, “simple things that people take for granted all the time. ‘What was her first car?’ And he told me. It was a Ford Torino. ‘What kind of music did she like?’ Her favorite band was the Rolling Stones.” Her favorite perfume? Chanel No. 5. “Little things that made her a human that I did not know. He gave that to me. … Nobody had ever done that for me.”

Cynthia has gone back to visit Johnson several times. And she is still asking questions. “There is so much more about her I want to know,” she says. “But I can’t do that if the state of Tennessee executes him.”

In the official narrative of capital punishment, there are victims and there are victimizers. The latter forfeit any value they might have to society; their death brings comfort and closure to the people they have harmed. Barriers to their execution — or those who protest against it — are an affront to victims and all grieving families.

The reality is far more complicated. There are the cases of actual innocence, in which the victimizer is the state. There are the revelations about the condemned that sometimes surface long after trial; childhoods often marked by extreme trauma, violence, or abuse, which complicate the definition of who we consider victims. There are the divisions within families over support for the death penalty for a loved one’s murder. And there is the inescapable reality that executions widen the trauma of a violent crime, impacting people in ways often invisible to society. In families like Cynthia’s or Sabrina’s, these are the same people who have already been victimized by the original tragedy. “People always want to say ‘victims’ family, victims’ family’ — and I’m one of those people,” Cynthia says. “But we have to understand that every single one of those inmates also have family.”

The reality of the capital punishment is far more complicated than its official narrative.

That understanding can lead to powerful acts of compassion. On the eve of the 2017 execution of Kenneth Williams in Arkansas, for example, the daughter of one of his victims not only wrote a letter asking the governor to spare his life — she flew Williams’s daughter to Arkansas to see her father before he died. “If Mr. Williams is executed,” she wrote, “her loss, her pain, will be as real as mine.” Her letter was ignored.

Despite the resurgence in executions, the reality is that death sentences are on a steep decline in Tennessee. This mirrors trends across the country, where support for the death penalty has reached historic lows. But the notion that the death penalty is justice for victims remains widely entrenched. The narrative was recently on display in Nashville, where the governor quietly signed a bill to speed up the appellate process in capital cases. Named the Sgt. Daniel Baker Act in homage to a sheriff’s deputy who was gunned down while on duty last year — and whose alleged killers have yet to be tried — the sponsors cast the legislation as an overdue remedy that has unfairly denied closure to victims’ families for years.

It’s true that the lengthy appellate process is burdensome for all involved, but Tennessee’s law will do very little to mitigate the problem. For one, it only applies to death sentences imposed after its passage — a vanishingly small number. In the meantime, politicians and prosecutors keep promising closure to victims’ families while continually delivering the opposite. “Every time I would try to get to a point in my life where I felt like I could move on, where I felt like I could try to lead some type of normal life, the death penalty is right back in my face,” Cynthia told the audience at Vanderbilt.

Politicians and prosecutors keep promising closure to victims’ families while continually delivering the opposite.

Johnson’s death has been scheduled before. One date was in 2006, when Cynthia still supported his execution. Her bags were packed to drive to Nashville. “I was ready to go,” she said. “I wanted him dead. That was my revenge. That was what I had been waiting for.” But mere days beforehand, she got a phone call telling her that he had gotten a stay. “That was probably the first time that I realized that something is just not right,” she said. “The state is making me a victim over and over and over again.” Meanwhile, she had never received the help she needed to process her trauma.

In the archived pages of the pro-death penalty websites where she once spent so much time, there’s a lot to show Cynthia wasn’t alone. The posts weren’t all bloodthirsty rants; in one thread, participants described how much they were struggling with their physical, mental, and emotional health. A mother could see how her depression was impacting her child; the grown son of a murder victim described feelings of guilt over his own mourning process. There was talk of the news media that swarm around trials or execution dates. How do you cope when everybody seems to care about you one moment and the next minute it’s like you don’t exist?

Sabrina never had a chance to mourn the loss of her son. To this day, in fact, she cannot access his grave. After she was exonerated, she became a seasoned public speaker with groups like Witness to Innocence. Yet she struggled to get a job. “Nobody wanted to hire me,” she says. Although Mississippi passed legislation in 2009 to provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted, no sum of money could address the enduring effects of her incarceration. “They didn’t give me any type of mental service, nothing.”

In a memoir published in 2011, Sabrina describes how she “became the living dead” after the death of her son. “I was an emotional zombie for many years.” The loss was compounded by the terror she felt over the threat of execution. Her first official “death date” was set soon after her conviction in 1990. While this was a mere formality given her right to appeal her conviction, Sabrina did not understand this, and her defense attorneys never explained it. A woman in a neighboring cell tried to reassure her that the state would not kill her so fast, but on that day, Sabrina woke up at 3 a.m. and paced furiously, scared for her life. “Every time I heard some keys,” she wrote, “I thought they were coming for me.”

On a Thursday afternoon in March, Sabrina and Cynthia met up again, this time at LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. Cynthia wore pink nail polish and a black top, her sleeves rolled up to the colorful tattoo she got as an homage to her mother. Sabrina wore braids and a T-shirt that read “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing,” which she got during a tour with an abolitionist group whose members have been impacted by murder and state-sanctioned executions.

Sabrina and Cynthia were scheduled to speak that evening, at an event co-sponsored by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the local criminal justice reform group, Just City. In their introductory remarks, speakers would trace the death penalty to its roots in lynchings and other forms of racial violence. The legacy is ever-present in Memphis, where Confederate statues were removed from city parks in 2017. A couple blocks away from the LeMoyne-Owen campus, a historical marker stood on the site of the People’s Grocery, whose three employees were murdered in a notorious lynching that helped inspire the activism of journalist Ida B. Wells.

Sabrina and Cynthia are no strangers to this history. Both grew up in small Southern towns with mostly white populations. After her mother’s murder, Cynthia was raised by an aunt in Tunica, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. Sabrina was born in Jackson, Mississippi, later moving across the state to Columbus. “In Columbus,” Sabrina told me, “they still have a mural on the wall in the post office of people in the field picking cotton.”

This legacy makes their particular bond a point of some pride. “I’ll go there, I’ll say it,” Cynthia said as we discussed the ways their message resonates with audiences. “She’s a black woman and I’m a white woman.” In a region where racial divisions run so deep, and at a time when people seem more politically polarized than ever, Cynthia and Sabrina believe that they can reach more people together than they ever could apart. Their stories remind people of the many ways women are affected by the death penalty — it is not all about men facing execution. And they defy people’s expectations of what friendship can look like. “We’re a force,” Sabrina says.

It’s not all about shared suffering or pain, either, although the feeling of being understood brings its own joy. They have a lot of funny stories to tell, like the time at a nice restaurant after an event in Chattanooga, when they both felt out of place deciphering the menu. (“We’re not fancy people,” Cynthia says.) Driving home later that night, Cynthia got a flat tire in the middle of the night; it was Sabrina who stayed on the phone with her to make sure she got through it OK.

As the event came to a close later that night, a young woman in the audience asked Cynthia a question that gave her pause. “You are both family of the victim and family of the accused,” she said. How did she find space to grieve her mother? “I think you’re the first person to ever ask me that,” Cynthia said.

On April 3rd, a small press conference was held at Riverside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nashville. Members of Johnson’s legal team handed out copies of a clemency petition that had been delivered to Governor Bill Lee earlier that morning. It told the story of Cynthia’s journey to forgiveness as well as Johnson’s own transformation while on death row. “It is not uncommon for inmates to have a religious experience while they are incarcerated,” Pastor Furman Fordham said. But Johnson became such a powerful leader in the prison ministry at Riverbend, the congregation took the rare move of ordaining him as a church elder in 2008.

Fordham recalled a day after church when a man approached him to say he had received bible study from Johnson in prison, a powerful testament to the role he has had helping men leave Riverbend “as changed individuals.” The clemency materials include portions of letters written on behalf of Johnson from dozens of men on death row. But the petition urges the governor to consider Cynthia above all. “She is the human being most deeply and directly affected by the weighty decision before you.”

Cynthia was not at the press conference that afternoon. It was her birthday. As she does most days, she spent the morning sleeping after her overnight shift at the casino where she works. She woke up to a chocolate cake and well-wishes from her friends. But she was bracing herself for the response to news of the clemency petition, including from family members who do not support her activism. On Facebook a couple of days later, Sabrina liked a post Cynthia put up quoting Tupac Shakur: “Y’all supposed to be happy I’m free.” (“You get it don’t ya Sabrina,” Cynthia replied.)

As Cynthia waits to hear from the governor, there is hope in the people supporting her stepfather. But the most relief right now comes from those who simply don’t judge or require explanations or expect anything from her. Sabrina gets this too. For all the years she has been telling her own story, it is always exhausting to recount your worst trauma — to reporters, to people at public events. “When you’re looking out into the audience, it’s like you have to prove something to the people,” Sabrina says. “That’s not easy. It’s not easy to put yourself right back where you started. That’s hard. So I love her because I can look over there and I can know that she shares what I know.”

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