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We'd Like to Say: Capital Punishment Is Not the Answer

By John and Lauren McBride

Two writers from Terre Haute, Indiana, where Timothy McVeigh was executed, speak out against the death penalty, an issue that divides their town and our country.



Standing at the Crossroads
Crusaders for Life
'Moving Through the Pain'
A City Divided
Waiting for the Wave of Truth
For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's daybreak near the banks of the Wabash River, June 11, 2001. Outside of the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana, 300 protesters maintain a 168-minute silent vigil to protest the death penalty and to memorialize the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Five hundred yards away, about 100 people—some favoring capital punishment, others just curious—are equally silent and caught up in the drama of the moment.

Overlooking the scene from their canopied platforms, 1,400 members of the worldwide media await the news that, in the first federal execution since 1963, 33-year-old Timothy James McVeigh has been put to death. Overhead, about the time that McVeigh is being hooked up to the injection equipment that will take his life, a dark cloud descends over the penitentiary grounds and begins to rain upon spectators, protesters and media alike.

A few weeks earlier, on the evening of May 16—the date originally scheduled for the execution—a brutal thunderstorm tore through the area, demolishing thousands of dollars worth of trailers, platforms and equipment erected by the media for that event.

Eight days after Timothy McVeigh is killed, on June 19, the day Juan Raul Garza becomes the second person executed by the federal government in 38 years, more severe storms will roll through the area. Some might call these weather patterns omens, or even judgments of God. More than likely, they are just facets of the season here on the edge of "Tornado Alley."

But they are certainly an appropriate symbol of the storm of controversy and media attention which has come to our small city as a result of the federal government's decision to resume executions here.

Standing at the Crossroads

Terre Haute, the county seat of Vigo County, is a community of approximately 53,000, located along the Wabash River in west central Indiana. Until this year, it had rarely gained national attention except as the home of Larry Bird, Eugene V. Debs and the original Coca-Cola bottle. The residents are mostly pleasant and easygoing; the setting, among rolling hills, old-growth forest and extensive family farms, is peaceful and pastoral.

Even though Terre Haute has been referred to as the "Crossroads of America," because it lies at the junction of national east-west and north-south highways, none of us who live here were prepared for it to become the national stage for the debate over capital punishment. After all, the last execution here before 2001 was a public hanging 130 years ago!

One person with ties to this Wabash Valley community, however, is perhaps the country's foremost authority on this controversy. Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, author of Dead Man Walking and head of the Moratorium Campaign—a nondenominational effort to halt executions throughout the country pending review of the way capital punishment is applied.

Sister Helen began the journey which led to her 19-year ministry to Death Row inmates, and the families of their victims, at St. Mary of the Woods College, operated by the Sisters of Providence on a beautiful wooded campus just outside of Terre Haute. In an "act of Providence," on May 5, 2001, she returned to St. Mary's to receive an honorary doctor of letters degree and to give the commencement address.

This Sister of St. Joseph observes that the popularity of the death penalty is waning when the option of life imprisonment without parole is offered by pollsters; that a recent poll shows 72 percent of Americans favor a moratorium on executions; and that more than half the survivors and families of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, following the example of Bud Welch, whose daughter perished in the explosion, ceased to support the execution of Timothy McVeigh.

This trend is seldom reported in the media even after Sister Helen's press conference here, and after only 300 of the available 1,000 seats for the closed-circuit TV broadcast of the execution were filled. Quoting attorney Barry Scheck, she says, "The death penalty is imploding under its own weight." The main reason for this, she thinks, is "that it has always been unfair."

Sister Helen argues the death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crimes (even U.S. Justice Department surveys show no correlation between executions and a reduction in violent offenses). It is more expensive than life in prison (an average of $500,000 to try, convict and incarcerate a person for life while it costs $3.8 million to convict and execute a person—McVeigh's defense cost the taxpayers $13.8 million!). Most importantly, it is irreversible.

Ninety-five innocent people have recently been released from Death Row, mostly, she believes, because they were victims of "prosecutorial misconduct"; and many innocent persons have been executed. She compares many prosecutors with the Denver Broncos, bent on winning at any cost: "The truth is sacrificed; justice is sacrificed."

As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of all life. In Matthew 25, Jesus, himself a victim of capital punishment, teaches that what we do to one of his "least brothers," we do to him—which certainly should give us pause when we contemplate an execution. Sister Helen reminds us that he taught us "not to return hate with hate, violence with violence." She urges us to "reflect on what capital punishment is doing to us as a society," and to participate in the Moratorium Campaign.

Crusaders for Life

The Catholic Church is in the vanguard of the opposition to capital punishment. The U.S. Catholic bishops urge all Catholics to "join organizations that work to curtail the death penalty...and those that call for its abolition" (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, U.S. Catholic Conference, 2000).

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of the Indianapolis Archdiocese (which includes Terre Haute) wrote at the time of Timothy McVeigh's execution that the death penalty "feeds a frenzy for revenge...[which] neither liberates the families of victims nor ennobles the victims of crime. Only forgiveness liberates."

Pope John Paul II, speaking in St. Louis in 1999 (where he successfully lobbied for clemency for a Missouri Death Row inmate; a similar request in 2001 for clemency for McVeigh was denied by President Bush), called for a "consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary." Catholics in Terre Haute have been equally outspoken on the subject. The Sisters of Providence, who led the silent vigil at both executions, have been actively promoting the Moratorium Campaign and the Declaration of Life, a legal document which anyone may sign and which states that, should the signatory be a victim of capital crime, all steps should be taken to ensure that the perpetrator is not executed.

Sister Joan Slobig, a member of the General Council of the Sisters of Providence, speaks of the Sisters' long-term involvement with prison ministry in the Wabash Valley. They continue efforts to abolish the death penalty through their Web site, local interfaith meetings, demonstrations and vigils and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. And they offer hospitality at St. Mary of the Woods to families of both victims and Death Row inmates.

Sister Rita Clare Gerardot has been ministering to Death Row inmates at the Terre Haute federal prison since early 2000 (including David Paul Hammer, who will likely be the next person put to death here). She has been speaking to local groups, trying to put a human face on people on Death Row. "They are the forgotten people in our society," she says, "and not all of them are guilty."

'Moving Through the Pain'

One of the most vocal and knowledgeable critics of capital punishment in this area is Father Ron Ashmore, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Church in Terre Haute. Within the boundaries of his parish lie the federal penitentiary and its death chamber. Father Ron was in Jerusalem when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. He credits the "mysterious Providence of God" for bringing him here, where he could become acquainted with Timothy McVeigh.

Having written a very moving article about Timothy and his impending execution for the Easter 2001 edition of our archdiocesan newspaper, The Criterion, Father Ron has been involved in a whirlwind of vigils, community meetings and interviews with local and national media.

He has eloquently opposed the death penalty and illuminated the humanity of those facing it—especially Timothy McVeigh, whom he came to know well, and Juan Raul Garza. He served as spiritual adviser for Juan and witnessed his execution after giving him last rites. (That sacrament was provided to Tim, also a Catholic, by a prison chaplain.)

Speaking of Timothy before his execution, Father Ron said, "The Gospel of Jesus...leads us to reach out with forgiving love to a son of the Father, as a brother to Jesus, as our brother." While condemning the crime and understanding the pain and "natural anger" of the survivors and the victims' families, he proclaims, "As a priest, I know that I must say that Tim is loved [by God] as deeply as the victims who've died, as deeply as those still walking through the pain, the hurt and the anger."

Father Ron feels the term "closure" is inappropriate. "I don't think there's any 'closure' to a painful experience like this," he says. "There's healing... [which] frees you to continue life's journey with joy, without being controlled by the hurt and the pain—not 'closure,' but openness."

After Juan Garza's June 19 execution, Father Ron described him as a "truly changed man after nine years in prison," a man whose last words were apologies to all and blessings on his victims' families. He was a man who died smiling and looking at Father Ron and who, at the moment of his passing, was "radiant and filled with the glory of God's grace."

A City Divided

But not everyone in Terre Haute opposes the death penalty. Dr. R. Kirby Goidel, associate professor of political science at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, does not object to it on moral grounds. But he says, "I think the process needs to be reformed," noting the racial and economic disparities in its application.

He and Dr. Thomas Steiger, associate professor of sociology at Indiana State University, share a concern about the "coarsening" effect of these executions on Terre Haute and American society as a whole. They offered a course on the death penalty at the university this past spring.

Steiger, who has more moral qualms about capital punishment than Goidel ("I don't like the notion of blood on my hands"), is especially concerned with its effects on those assigned to carry it out. Indeed, Warden Harley Lapin, who was in charge of these two federal executions, showed considerable strain at the concluding press conferences: "As you've heard me say before, I anticipated this to be a very difficult thing to do...and it was."

Goidel and Steiger also recognize that the image of Terre Haute, nationally and internationally, may be altered by these executions. They lay the responsibility for much of this, and for the continuation of capital punishment itself, at the door of the mass media—with its proclivity for scare tactics and the use of labels like "soft on crime" and "war on crime."

One member of the media, Dana Winklepleck, television news anchor for local station WTWO, was assigned to cover the McVeigh execution. She agrees that these events have had a major impact on our city, but feels that most citizens just want to get on with their lives. Having met some of the foreign press sent to cover this event, she mentioned the "outrage" in Europe over our use of capital punishment.

Winklepleck also felt a personal impact in covering this execution. Beforehand, she could "see both sides" of this argument; now she is against capital punishment. "It's a very odd feeling, knowing you were there just waiting for someone to die." Kathy Dash, another news anchor at WTWO, spoke for most of us when she commented, "It's kind of sad that we're going to get used to these executions."

Waiting for the Wave of Truth

How sad indeed for those of us in Terre Haute—and in other communities across the country where executions take place—who have been thrust into the spotlight of this debate and into the stark realities of capital punishment.

Our nation has become a pariah to the world. Foreign governments refuse to extradite fugitives to the United States because they do not condone our use of the death penalty. The Organization of American States condemned the trial and execution of Juan Raul Garza as a "violation of international law."

Yet our tax dollars pay for it. The politicians we elect support or allow it. Bud Welch, when referring to the execution of Timothy McVeigh and especially the mishandling of the case and the evidence by the F.B.I., said that he is "totally embarrassed to be an American citizen."

Nineteen of the 38 states allowing the death penalty have ballot initiatives or legislation pending to halt executions. Illinois Governor George Ryan has declared a moratorium in his state. Congress has similar initiatives being sponsored by Senators Russell D. Feingold and Carl Levin. Sister Helen urges us all to support these measures, and feels that such support will result in a moratorium on all executions.

"It's hard to say exactly when a wave hits the shore," she says. "You can tell a wave is building. You can tell the wave is moving. And so we have to hasten its coming."

For Whom the Bell Tolls

At 6 p.m. on June 11 and June 19, church bells rang out at St. Mary of the Woods, at St. Margaret Mary Parish and at other churches across Terre Haute, around Indiana and throughout the nation. As part of a national project called "For Whom the Bells Toll," bells ring each time an execution takes place anywhere in the country.

The title of the project is taken from a piece by 17th-century author and clergyman John Donne, who wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself;...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

As we listened to the bells toll in June, we wondered how many more times they would have to ring—how many more times we would be "diminished"—before this deadly cycle of retribution is ended once and for all. Some residents of Terre Haute fear that our town will be remembered as the site of the federal death house and of these executions. Instead, we, like many others, hope and pray that it will one day be remembered as the site of the last federal execution ever.

For more information on The Moratorium Campaign, please call (504) 864-1071 or visit


Lauren and John McBride live just outside Terre Haute, Indiana, and work for the Franciscan friars of St. John the Baptist Province.

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