NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Death row inmate Donnie Johnson wasn’t able to have contact with many people after being moved to death watch at the beginning of the week.
But one family was constantly there for Johnson – from 2004, up until his final hours.
Death row inmates are assigned a spiritual advisor. Back in 2004, Johnson was scheduled to be executed, and was given an advisor.
Of course, that execution didn’t happen – but that advisor, John Dysinger, and his family, visited Johnson faithfully for the rest of his life.
When Johnson’s 2004 execution didn’t happen, John told him it was getting difficult to visit monthly. The drive from Williamsport to Nashville was a haul – especially for a man with a farm, a wife and four kids.
“Don just said, ‘Bring them!’” said Pam Dysinger, John’s wife.
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“I was surprised. I just never thought you could bring kids to death row,” John said.
But they could, and they did. Death row is where they told FOX13 Investigative Reporter Leah Jordan that 15 years of memories with Johnson began.
“Our youngest, Caleb, would always sit right on his lap. He’d get up on his lap, and we realized later it was because Uncle Don would slip him a piece of candy, which was something special,” Pam said.
Every year, they said Johnson sent the kids birthday cards with $5 inside.
“That’s a lot,” Jonathan Dysinger, one of Pam and John’s kids, said. “Inmates don’t make hardly anything.”
Pam said if it was meal time, they’d put the inmate on speaker phone and chat around the dinner table.
She said on Christmas Eve, the family would organize a Christmas program and sing to Johnson on the phone so that he felt included.
One thing led to another, and the Dysingers said Johnson went from a death row inmate to a family member. They said when they began visiting Johnson in 2004, he was already “very solid in his walk with The Lord.”
Now, they call him a “seasoned” Christian.
“It’s been a huge privilege for our family and children to call him Uncle Don,” Pam said.
This week has been a grim reality the Dysingers hoped they’d never actually face. The kids said their “see you laters” on Sunday.
“[He’s] just a really kind, and…almost like a grandpa. Really. Honestly,” now 25-year-old Jonathan said. “He’s a great storyteller and loves to talk and encourage you. He’ll be sure to give you a little piece of advice before you leave.”
Johnson couldn’t have visits from anyone except his lawyers and his spiritual advisor while he was on death watch.
John said it was the first time he ever had to visit with Johnson through glass.
“And then, to see him come in, with his handcuffs and shackles…all chained up. That was not easy,” John said.
John said Johnson spent much of the week comforting the Dysingers and ensuring John that – if it was ‘his time’ to die Thursday night – he’d be alright.
“He said, ‘Nothing’s changed. I’m too blessed to be stressed.’ He has an incredible amount of faith and peace,” John said through tears. “I want to be more like Don.”
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