Edward Earl Johnson
127 x 117 cm
Oil on canvas 2009
Death Row Mississippi
Executed in Gas Chamber: 1987
I first came across the name Clive Stafford Smith and his work providing legal representation to people on Death row in the documentary film Fourteen Days in May. The film follows the last two weeks in the life of Edward Earl Johnson before his execution in the gas chamber at Parchman, Mississippi in 1987. His defence lawyer was a fresh-faced Clive Stafford Smith and Warden Donald Cabana was responsible for conducting the execution.
Edward, who always protested
his innocence, remains calm and reflective as the lawyers fight for a stay of execution while the prison officers go through the grisly process of testing the gas chamber and preparing for his death.
The film relates Edwards claim that he was innocent of the attempted rape of an elderly woman and murder of a police officer. He describes an identification parade, where the woman victim claimed that she previously knew Edward and it was not him. He tells how he agreed to take a lie detector test but during the journey the officers stopped the van and threatened to shoot him and claim that he tried to escape unless he made a confession. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.
After Edward’s execution a woman came forward claiming she was with him at the time of the crime. She said she had gone to the authorities at the time but had been told to “get lost and mind her own business.”
Fourteen Days in May also led me to Warden Don Cabana. In the film, before the execution, Don professes his belief in Edward’s guilt and his duty to carry out the order of the State but his discomfort at the act he is about to commit is very apparent. The final moments of Edward’s life are not recorded but the sight of two rabbits violently jerking and twitching before succumbing to the poison during the gas chamber test leaves the imagination to fill the gap.
“He looked at me very calmly and he said, ‘Warden, I’m at peace with my God, how are you gonna
be with yours?’ And I walked out of that chamber convinced that he was innocent, I really did.”
- Warden Cabana about Edward
"I’m innocent. I haven’t been able to make anybody listen to me or believe me, and warden, you know, in a few minutes you’re about to become a murderer.” - Edward’s final statement to Warden Cabana