Death Penalty Activism
Bringing faith and creativity to the struggle

by Joe Wakelee-Lynch

"Nine Lives" project, photographs of men who had been awaiting execution on Illinois' Death Row who were later found not guilty and freed.
© Loren Santow Photography

Alex Hernandez

Anthony Porter

Darby Tillis

Gary Gauger

Joe Burrows

Perry Cobb

Rolando Cruz

Ron Jones

Steve Smith

Verneal Jimerson

Dennis Williams

Carl E. Lawson

For several years, people fighting to stop the death penalty have reaped benefits from the nation’s willingness to turn its attention to questions about its fairness and morality. The governor of Illinois imposed a moratorium in January of 2000, newspapers across the country have launched investigations into the system’s racial disparities, and the number of states passing prohibitions on executing prisoners who are retarded increases steadily.


Since the September terrorist attacks in the United States, however, the nation’s attention has been diverted from this and other causes. But the work against capital punishment goes on. Most activists see the abolition of capital punishment as a long-term project. Perhaps more important, they are profoundly engaged with the issue through personal ministries.

"What about bin Laden?"
One prominent group that has seen first-hand the recent change in political climate is Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), an organization made up of people who have lost a loved one to violence, including family members of prisoners who have been executed. Because MVFR both opposes capital punishment and advocates for policies and programs that help family members who have lost loved ones to violence, MVFR leaders expected an increased demand on their time after September. People have asked MVFR members what they can expect as they go through the grief process, said Renny Cushing, MVFR’s executive director.

"There are thousands of victims," he says, "and we’ve had lots of conversations."

Cushing admits that the attacks have had a "profound impact," and the question of how to punish terrorists has entered the capital punishment debate. He finds himself addressing it almost every time he speaks.

"It’s usually the first question," said Cushing. "Someone will say, ‘I can see your position when it comes to murderers of one person or a few, but what about mass murderers? What about Osama bin Laden?’ "

Yet nothing has occurred that changes MVFR’s stance or its work, he said.

"There’s a lot of attention across the country on how to respond to the attacks. There’s a bit of hysteria today. But nothing has changed for us. As for the victims, we don’t want to replicate the pain that we already live with."

Victory in Santa Clara County
If proof is needed that recent events have not derailed the movement to stop the death penalty, one place it may be found is in California. In late October, the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, a county that rims the southern portion of the San Francisco Bay and includes the city of San Jose, approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in the state.

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 4 to 1, calls upon the governor to impose a moratorium "unless and until discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin or economic status is eliminated," as well as the risk of executing innocent people.

Terry McCaffrey, a member of the Human Concerns Commission of the Catholic Diocese of San Jose and an area coordinator for Amnesty International, said religious and secular people in the county have been working on this project for 18 months. It required building grassroots support by enlisting a broad range of religious and secular organizations to go on record in support of a moratorium.

One of the key early steps, said McCaffrey was to exploit the organizational opportunity provided from a visit to San Jose by Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking and chair of the Moratorium Campaign, an organization working for a death penalty moratorium nationwide. Prejean’s visit not only offered a vehicle to spread the message but an event to connect with a range of people who could be recruited for the project.

McCaffrey also worked with California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty, an interreligious coalition opposing capital punishment in the state, as well as with the Diocese of San Jose, which gave the growing coalition access to Catholic parishes throughout the county.

The coalition chose to focus on the death penalty at the county level for very strategic reasons. The county government is an overlooked yet utterly crucial stage in the execution system.

Although the state of California carries out the sentence of execution, McCaffrey pointed out, prosecuting a murder defendant in a capital case is a county district attorney’s decision, and the funds required are borne by the county. Compared to cases with lesser murder charges, a capital case requires a huge expenditure of funds–more court costs, more legal fees, more appeals, more lawyers’ time.

"It’s the county that prosecutes, that funds the county defender and that tries the person in the county court system," said McCaffrey. "So it’s the seat of power in the local area when it comes to the death penalty."

In California in particular, county funds are stretched far, and the decision to pursue a capital conviction can be as much an economic decision as a judicial one. In fact, one of the many sources of unfairness in the death penalty system, say its opponents, is the fact that two people can commit the same type of murder in two different counties yet end up with widely disparate charges. Some counties prosecute few or no capital cases simply because they haven’t the budget to do so.

In Santa Clara county, McCaffrey said, the resolution could never have passed without a broad-based team effort that included many groups and individuals with a wide variety of skills and knowledge. The coalition included Catholics, Methodists, Jews and Muslims.

They also found crucial support within the county administration.

"We had an ‘insider’ on the human relations commission of Santa Clara county who helped steer us through the county bureaucracy. That kind of person was invaluable in this process."

In a major step last May, the coalition held two days of public hearings in the board’s chambers. Spokespeople from group after group–priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, leaders of mosques, a technology company CEO, lawyers, a high school student, a county public defender, a murder victim’s mother–presented their testimony to the public to urge the supervisors to call for a halt to executions. When such a wide range of citizens and groups assembled and spoke with a single voice, said McCaffrey, the board had to listen.

"It suddenly put some breaks in the system," he explained. "When you’re confronted with an organized demonstration of strength, it makes you pause."

An anti-death-penalty parish
Farther up the San Francisco Bay, on the north side, activism has also been going strong. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in San Rafael, is in a unique position. Its geographic boundaries not only take in homes and businesses but also San Quentin State Prison, home of California’s death row for men and its execution chamber. That fact hasn’t been lost on the parishioners. In 1996 they decided that because of their proximity, they have a call to minister to the men on death row (women are housed elsewhere in the state).

Today, that ministry involves the work of about 30 parishioners, said Joan Peterson, one of its leaders. Some visit death row prisoners, as does the rector, Bruce Bramlett. Bramlett, in fact, was a spiritual advisor to Robert Lee Massie, the ninth person executed by the state since the practice was resumed in 1982.

Communion is taken to the prison every Sunday. Parishioners also correspond with prisoners and, when appropriate, write to Gov. Gray Davis seeking commutations for prisoners. Whenever the state carries out an execution, church members hold a vigil. The church bells are rung and a meal is provided to participants in the Walk for Life, a 25-mile walk from San Francisco to the prison gate.

The church also has reached out to family members of death row inmates. Three close friends of Tommy Thompson, executed in July 1998, have found a church home at St. Paul’s.

"They met me while I was visiting Tommy Thompson on death row," said Bramlett. "As we all went through the process leading up to Thompson’s execution, St. Paul’s was the place that held prayer services and vigils. And we held the memorial services for Tom after he died. That really bonded them to us, and they are still active members."

Not everyone at the church opposes the death penalty.

"There are people in the parish who are pro-death penalty," Peterson said. "And it’s a one-on-one process of trying to change their hearts and minds. But all in all, I’d say we are an anti-death penalty parish."

Keeping a parish identity to death penalty work, especially when the ministry originates in the congregation, can be important, said Bramlett. "That’s one of the reasons why California People of Faith Against the Death Penalty was formed," he explained, "to try to maintain some of the faith commitment."

The San Rafael rector believes in the need for broad coalitions that fight the capital punishment system. But religious groups must take care to ensure that their voices aren’t submerged, he said. They speak to the issue with a unique moral authority that is crucial to the movement.

Bramlett is also aware of the risk to a local congregation when it launches a death penalty group that later is folded into a non-religious coalition. As this kind of ministry gets farther from the rest of the parishioners, it also gets farther from their moral attention, he said.

"It allows the death penalty to become a secular moral issue in parishioners’ eyes," said Bramlett. "and that’s not the case at all."

A ministry of accompaniment
Churchill Gibson has been visiting Virginia’s death row in Waverly for nine years. He spent 20 years as chaplain and professor of pastoral theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria.

Along with Edward Fraher, a layperson at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Gibson visits death row every other Monday to see prisoners who are locked down for 23 hours a day. Gibson goes right to the cell of the man he wishes to visit and pulls up a chair. Before he can begin a conversation, he has to wait for a guard to open the food slot on the cell door.

Gibson builds relationships with prisoners through his regular visits.

His ministry, he said, is "to do all that we can to bring the Spirit of God in an isolated situation." He tries to help the prisoners use their jail time positively.

"God doesn’t waste anything," said Gibson, "so he’s not wasting their time there. We try to work with them to help them use their time well."

They urge prisoners to take responsibility for their actions and to deal with forgiveness–"God’s forgiveness of them and their forgiveness of themselves."

"The distressing thing about the penal system," said Gibson, "is there’s no element of redemption expected anywhere in it. In Virginia, [prisoners are] warehoused and punished."

Sometimes Gibson’s ministry takes him to death’s door, the execution chamber itself. When a prisoner is executed, Gibson will accompany him throughout most of the day if asked. If a prisoner doesn’t request that Gibson walk with him to the chamber itself, then Gibson leaves the prison and holds vigil, candle in hand, in a field by the prison. It’s a the end of a process that in his eyes offers nothing good to anyone involved.

"We’re so far from any ability to forgive," he said. "It’s tragic. Hate is just a corrosive, negative, horrible element."

Deacons against the death penalty
In Louisiana last June, frustration with the senselessness of capital punishment led to the signing of an anti-death-penalty statement [see sidebar] by the Community of Deacons, a small group of deacons active in ministries throughout the state.

Louisiana has a thriving diaconate, partly due to the work of Ormonde Plater, archdeacon of the diocese and author of several books on the role of deacons in the church. The ministry of deacons is focused on mercy and justice, said Plater, and in recent years it has seen something of a revival.

"The statement was prompted by the execution of Timothy McVeigh," Plater said. "As the execution approached, we thought that we ought to be saying something on this as a matter of justice."

The statement was written by Charles de Gravelles, a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge who also serves a mission church within the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola [see ].

"There is a real logic to the fact that deacons produced this statement," de Gravelles explained. "One focus of the role of the deacon is serving those in need: the poor and the marginalized. And it’s clearly been demonstrated that people who are faced with execution are poor and marginalized in many ways. Some of them can’t afford a lawyer or they can’t afford a good one.

"Ormond Plater asked me to draft a statement," he continued, "and we hammered out the language. I hope it will be a catalyst for conversation and that the [death penalty] issue will stay in the front burner, or at least on the middle burner. We intended it for the clergy in our diocese, and we hoped to spark continuing debate nationwide."

The statement was sent over the internet to more than 300 deacons in the U. S. and around the world.

For Whom the Bells Toll
One of the simplest and most widespread forms of death penalty opposition has been the tolling of bells. "For Whom the Bells Toll" is a project that asks religious organizations or groups to toll their bells whenever there is an execution. On the day of an execution, bells are rung for two minutes, starting at 6 p.m. Churches, monasteries, abbeys, temples and synagogues in at least 35 states have joined in this somber practice.

Organizers say it began in Philippines at the urging of Cardinal Jaime Sin. When Roman Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan visited that country, he decided to do the same within his Richmond, Va. diocese. The campaign, organized by Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), will continue until there is a moratorium on the death penalty or until the death penalty is abolished in the U. S.

The politics of burial
In Atlanta, Ga. the Open Door Community, a center of ministry for homeless people, has worked against the death penalty for more than 20 years. Two pastors, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, have visited prisoners on the row throughout that time. But the Open Door, along with the Jubilee Community in Comer, Ga., offers another poignant ministry as well. They bury executed prisoners.

Elizabeth Dede of the Open Door said that if someone on Georgia’s death row requests it, or if a family is too poor to afford funeral services, people at the Open Door, along with the Jubilee Community in Comer, will conduct a burial on the property of the Jubilee Community, located in rural Georgia.

"Some prisoners have asked to be buried at Jubilee just because they know that it’s a place where they would be wanted," she said.

Burying prisoners is part of the fight against the death penalty, in Dede’s view, because it is a political statement. The death penalty system, she acknowledged, is designed to deny and erase all traces of the humanity in people on death row. The ministry of providing a loving and Christian burial to the victims of state execution is a way of proclaiming life in the face of death. Burying those who are executed affirms their essential humanity and worth.

"You visit someone because he or she is a human being, and you come to know someone as infinitely more than some terrible act," Dede said.

Lately, she says, some prisoners have made a new request.

"Recently, people on death row have requested that they be cremated. They’ve told us that they’ve spent to much time in a box that they don’t want to be buried in one. They’d rather be cremated and have their ashes spread around outside. One said, ‘Spread my ashes, so that I’ll be free.’ "

Writer Joe Wakelee-Lynch lives in Berkeley, Calif.