Johnny Ray Johnson correspondence with Joanna Vaughn
Johnny Ray Johnson was born on August 2, 1957 in (presumably Austin) Texas. By the time Johnson turned five years old, both of his parents were incarcerated. After a series of accidents that brought Johnson to University Medical Center Brakenridge’s emergency room (Austin, Texas) in 1964, his aunt Julie assumed custody of him until she suffered a debilitating stroke. Johnson was transferred to foster care thereafter, circa 1969. At the age of 17, Johnson left foster care and started living on the streets. He periodically worked as a taxi driver and trucker. On May 21, 1996, Johnson was found guilty for the aggravated sexual assault and murder of Leah Joette Smith that occurred on March 27, 1995. A jury sentenced him to death on May 30, 1996. Johnson confessed to the crime but later retracted his confession and said he made it under duress while in police custody. Johnson filed both state and federal petitions for writs of habeas corpus and an appeal with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the applications and appeal were denied.
While on death row, Johnson became a devout Christian through the evangelizing of other inmates, particularly Keith Clay. In 2003, Johnson met Burnett Clay, a woman who ministered on death row and was the adoptive mother of Keith Clay. Clay took on a maternal role with Johnson in addition to being his spiritual adviser. Through Clay, Johnson also met and became friends with Clay's sister, Helen Phillips. Johnson referred to Clay as his mother and Phillips as his aunt.
In 2005, Johnson became pen pals and friends with Joanna Vaughn through the Friends Meeting of Austin, a Quaker group that regularly sends Christmas cards to death row inmates in Texas and facilitates pen pals. Johnson and Vaughn corresponded regularly until Johnson’s execution in 2009.
Before his execution, Johnson created a will that bequeathed all his belongings to Clay. (In an oral history interview with Texas After Violence Project, Clay states that she only received a few books that belonged to Johnson and not his diaries, writings or any other materials.) Clay arranged for Johnson to be cremated per his wishes and buried him alongside Keith Clay. In his last statement, Johnson called for abolishment of the death penalty. On February 12, 2009, Burnett Clay, Helen Phillips and Joanna Vaughn witnessed the execution of Johnny Ray Johnson.
- Clay, Burnett and Helen Phillips. Interview with Burnett Clay and Helen Phillips. May 16, 2009. Texas After Violence Project Collection of Oral History Videos, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin. http://av.lib.utexas.edu/index.php?title=TAVP:Burnett_Clay_and_Helen_Phillips_1 (accessed March 25, 2015)
- Johnson, Johnny Ray. Letter to Joanna Vaughn. 2008 June 6. Box 1, Folder 3. Johnny Ray Johnson correspondence to Joanna Vaughn, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.
- Johnson, Johnny Ray. Last Statement. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_info/johnsonjohnnylast.html (accessed March 25, 2015)
- Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Death Row Offenders: Johnny Ray Johnson. http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_info/johnsonjohnny.jpg (accessed March 25, 2015)
The collection is organized into two series: Correspondence and Photographs. Correspondence contains 30 letters from Johnny Ray Johnson to Joanna Vaughn between 2005-2009. The bulk of the correspondence occurs between 2006-2008. This series contains envelopes that are restricted from public use in order to protect the privacy of the recipient. Photographs contains one color photograph of Johnson and Vaughn.
The letters were composed both by hand and on a typewriter. The correspondence reveals insights into Johnson’s personal experiences and his faith, as well as daily life on death row in Texas. He shares memories of his life prior to incarceration (such as his parents and living in foster care and working as a trucker) and his alibi and account of how he arrived on death row as well as his appeals process and experience with various lawyers who worked on his case. He also provides in-depth detail of experiencing lockdowns and searches; general living conditions and treatment by the guards; how the prison commissary and medical system works; modes of communication on death row; celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year on death row; his reactions to the executions of fellow death row inmates Karl Chamberlain, Leon David Dorsey IV, Marion Dudley, Jaime Elizalde Jr., Robert James Neville Jr., Lamont Reese; and the suicides of Jesus Flores and William Robinson. Johnson also talks about the importance of friendship and his desire for freedom.
Although the collection does not include any of the letters that Joanna Vaughn wrote to Johnny Ray Johnson, Johnson’s responses indicate that Vaughn shared details about her daily life, family and faith.
Correspondence in unrestricted. One folder with the envelopes is restricted to protect the privacy of the recipient.
Standard copyright restrictions apply.
Cite as: Johnny Ray Johnson correspondence with Joanna Vaughn, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.
Box and Folder Inventory