Death was too kind for killer

Published 1:59 am Saturday, October 22, 2011

Holman Prison north of Atmore is home to Alabama’s death row and its execution chamber. I couldn’t begin to count the number of executions that occurred there while the news in that city was my responsibility. Often, I was asked if we covered them. We didn’t, because aside from the fact that someone we knew had to flip the switch on the “yellow mama,” Alabama’s electric chair, the stories were never local.

This week’s execution was very local and hit home in a strangely different way.

Christopher Thomas Johnson was executed by lethal injection Thursday night for the brutal 2005 murder of his 6-month-old son, Ocean Elias Johnson. The young family lived in Atmore and attended Trinity Episcopal Church, as did we, at the time. The women of our church had reached out to the young family, helping them put together a household.

None of us shall ever forget leaving church on Sunday and seeing the couple’s nearby apartment sealed off with yellow crime tape.

Like me, my dear friend Joe Thomas, publisher of The Tri-City Ledger in Flomaton, has never attended an execution. This week, he really wanted to go.

Joe was in the courtroom for Johnson’s bond hearing the day he broke down and told the story of how he beat his infant son to death because he “hated his wife.” He told the judge that his last words to the child were “You go see Jesus.”

Later, in Johnson’s trial, Joe heard the autopsy report. It is inconceivable to him or to me that a human could inflict the torture that Johnson did, especially on his own child.

For the first time, Johnson’s wife spoke out this week.

“I am sorry that the people of Atmore, myself, and my son had to be subjected to this horrible crime. The people of Atmore were some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met,” she said.

Johnson represented himself for most of his trial, asked for the death penalty, and requested that no one appeal his sentencing in his behalf. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his sentence.

Just before someone began putting the lethal fluids in Johnson’s arm, he had two last words.

“Game over.”

I’m not sure what kind of game he thought he was playing. If his own death was what he sought, why did he kill his child?

I don’t personally support the death penalty. There is tons of research about innocent people being put to death, the death penalty not being equally applied, and little proof that it is a deterrent to crime. Disturbing as that is, what I cannot wrap my head around is the idea that it is OK for us as a society to kill a man –and very rarely, a woman – while condemning that individual for the death of another. Two wrongs do not add up to a right.

In this case, I especially don’t support the death penalty, and neither does my friend Joe.

An easy death, we agreed Thursday afternoon, was too good for this man. Having to live longer with what he did might have been a better punishment.