2005: Richard Cartwright, uncensored 1997: Bruce Edwin Callins, in the machinery of death

1987: Edward Earl Johnson, “I guess nobody is going to call”

May 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1987, murmuring “I guess nobody is going to call,”* Edward Earl Johnson was gassed for capital murder in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison.

Don Cabana, the prison warden who oversaw Johnson’s gassing, eventually resigned over his misgivings about carrying out executions and wrote this book about it.

Johnson was convicted of raping a white woman and killing the policeman who answered her distress call. These are no-nos for a young person of color in the South.

Johnson fought his execution for eight years on death row, insisting on his innocence even on his last walk to the gas chamber.

And the case against him looks pretty thin — supported, as these things so often are, mostly by a highly suspect confession Johnson miraculously coughed up when he was out on a drive with John Law. (This led the victim, who knew Johnson and had excluded him as the attacker, to decide he did it after all.)

Needless to say, Johnson’s state-appointed public defender was unable to make the most of these gaping lacunae in the state’s case.

Years later, the prison warden Don Cabana — who was on this date overseeing his very first execution, and was deeply shaken by it — recalled his charge’s fearful situation in testimony to the Minnesota legislature:

He insisted to the very end, somewhat oddly, that he did not commit the crime … my experience with condemned prisoners was always that once strapped to the chair, they came around somehow with something, if only something simple as “Tell the victim’s family I’m sorry,” “Tell my mother I’m sorry,” something that indicated something bad had happened, I was there and I was part of it.

But not so with this young man. When I performed my ritualistic function of asking if he had a final public statement, this young man looked me in the eye with tears streaming down his cheeks, and he said: “Warden, you’re about to become a murderer. I did not kill that policeman, and dear God, I can’t make anyone believe me.”

This is a musty old case by now, but with the growing awareness of false confessions as a contributing factor in wrongful convictions, it may soon come in for a long-overdue re-examination.

Johnson, unfortunately, does not have any prospect of an a-ha forensic science win. However, as with Cameron Todd Willingham‘s case, there’s simply no balance of evidence that should point a fair-minded present-day observer to a conviction beyond reasonable doubt, and a good deal that points to an affirmative conclusion of innocence.

As the (admittedly partisan) Wrongful Conviction: International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice sums up,

[t]he murder weapon was never connected to Johnson; indeed, no physical evidence linked Johnson to the crime. The case against Johnson is weakened by his claim of inadequate counsel, his immediate recantation of his confession, and his claim that his confession was produced under threat of death. Also, after Johnson’s execution, a young woman came forward claiming to have been with Johnson on the night of the murder, and claiming also that she had come forward during the investigation but was rebuffed by police.

Edward Earl Johnson is the subject of the riveting BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May.

* Quoted in the New York Times, May 21, 1987.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Mississippi,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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9 Responses to “1987: Edward Earl Johnson, “I guess nobody is going to call””

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » Themed Set: Executions for Abolitionists Says:

    [...] May 20: Edward Earl Johnson [...]

  2. 2
    Hanna on the Death Penalty and the Texas Defender Service - Human Rights in Ireland Says:

    [...] well known and often cited cases of innocent persons being executed, are that of Jesse Tafero, and Edward Earl Johnson. The case of Jesse Tafero has become the locus classicus for how horrific the actual administration [...]

  3. 3
    The Ancient Pythoness » Blog Archive » Why Shreveport? Says:

    [...] with an electric chair, which gave way as the means of execution in the 1980s to lethal injection. Edward Earl Johnson was executed at Parchman for the rape of an elderly woman and the murder of the police officer who [...]

  4. 4
    Tony Montana Says:

    Raping a woman and then killing a police officer are no-nos in general, regardless of the colours of those involved or where you do it- with the possible exception of my dear South Africa, where rape is now considered more to be a breach of etiquette and the cops don’t arrive in time for you to shoot one.

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » 2008: Curtis Osborne, poorly represented Says:

    [...] dimensions of the death penalty system, simply because individual cases are, well, individual. The many plausible actual innocence cases are one thing. Here what you’ve got is a guy who [...]

  6. 6
    eric Says:

    Where is it rape,murder,and cop killing considered normal behavior?

  7. 7
    Jamie Millard Says:

    How on earth did they manage to convict a man with a false confession gained at gun point with no witnesses apart from a lady who said it was not johnson then changed her mind? This guy was blatantly not guilty. I hope the governor and all the jury and state officials involved in this pre-meditated state murder are brought to justice. This was a man who by prison officers conclusions did not kill a policeman. He was a very thoughtful quiet young man brought up in the most racist place on earth and that being Mississippi. Johnson johnson contested his innocence to the very end and it was heart wrenching to see his final moments on death row with such a proud and loving family.

    America is not the land of the free etc. with a death penalty that exterminated a life forever it is draconian and the worst firm of punishment. Some probably do deserve to die!! But this guy was 27 years old!! Never a trouble maker in prison. He had a very decent family. Now I am a British white doctor and am 44 years old and I first saw this documentary when I was just 19!! I haunted me then and still does today. Even facing death earl johnsons thoughts were for his family. He may not have looked scared but his sole was broken and severe depression was evident. In Russia they banned the death penalty and if the US patriotic flag waving fat idiots like to live in a country that has killed many innocent people on death row then I will never visit the country again. On death row itself it is a very lonely isolated place where if you are not sane then you soon will be. Years waiting for an execution date is worse that the execution date itself. You basically break that person down till they lose all hope. There should be 1 national appeals court that should be allowed to research a case for years and only then verify if a convict is guilty or not. Also life without parole for 16 year olds in some states is beyond belief it gives no incentive for a person to change their lives for the better!!

    There are some evil people out there but not earl johnson who got the worse kind of defence team even after sir Clive Stanford smith interviewed he was still a very young human rights lawyer still learning the ropes. He seemed to laid back and inexperienced at the time to take on the US federal government. The BBC could have provided a much better legal team for Earl Johnson as they could afford a whole team if people to follow him around for two weeks. The death warrant was coming out of the printer before Clive was able to put his case forward. It’s not Clive’s fault he failed. It was a young lawyer up against the very best prosecution state lawyers.

    Rip Earl and got bless your innocent sole.

    Regards Jamie. Xx

  8. 8
    KYGB Says:

    This is a classic example of the uneven application of justice under the American death penalty. If Johnson would’ve had decent counsel, the “confession” would have never seen the trial transcript.

    A couple savvy young lawyers added to the defense team would have converted this case into a Murder II at worst and an acquittal at best.

    Read Warden Cabana’s book. This case gave him so many second thoughts that he wrote his book and quit the penal system.

  9. 9
    Jamie Millard Says:

    I agree with the above. Yes I would love a copy of warden cabanas book. I was 19 at the time and studying for a doctorate. I would have offered my services for free even without a law degree. How on earth did the severe lack of evidence and the victim who knew johnson and said he did not do it then change her mind??! There is a massive hole the size of a meteorite crator in this case. He was denied an appeal or the right for a clemency hearing. From the very outset the officer which asked Edward to confess or be shot for escaping needs investigating and all the team associated with johnsons conviction. Edward had the lynch rope around his neck just because he was black, same height and drove a Buick!! How many fucking black people out their at earls height and build drive a Buick back then? I’ll tell you there are thousands!! Earl was lynched off the streets for what was and still is a state premeditated murder. I along with a new uk legal team are now going to ask for Edwards name to be cleared and his innocence reinstated. From the day of his arrest he was a dead man willing. The witness who was with Edward at the time of the murder was basically told outside the court to bugger off!!

    I will do what it takes and with a lot of rich and very prominent backers in uk law plus a couple of high profile human rights lawyers I aim to have edward aquited of the murder of a police officer ( who is also a victim & the lady who lied about johnson raping her ) if he had raped her then all the evidence should still be bagged up today and DNA can establish if any of Edward johnsons DNA was anywhere near the crime scene.

    How the international community stood by and let this atrocity happen is beyond me!!

    If confessions by this team were carried out under a gun. If this happened to earl then it has happened to many others dealt with by this devious law enforcer. This brings in to doubt all other convictions by this police officer. Has anyone else he arrested given ‘confessions’ under duress where the end result was the death penalty.

    I hope Edwards family know that I won’t stop until I get the truth and johnson gets a pardon and his good name restored.

    Regards and hope you all back me up.

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