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 peoplesome favoring capital punishment,
others just curiousare 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 16the
date originally scheduled for the executiona 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
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
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
Campaigna 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 personMcVeigh'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 himwhich 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,
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
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 itespecially 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 Tim...as 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 painnot '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
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 mediawith 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 Hauteand
in other communities across the country where executions
take placewho 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 ringhow 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
For more information on The Moratorium Campaign, please
call (504) 864-1071 or visit www.MoratoriumCampaign.org.
Lauren and John McBride live just outside Terre Haute, Indiana, and work for the Franciscan friars of St. John the Baptist Province.