Living and dying on death row: an eyewitness account


For four years I was a volunteer chaplain at the Indiana State Prison. My job was to listen, befriend and care for those who were locked up. Here is the story of one man on Indiana’s death row.

While all of us have the potential for both goodness and cruelty, it was always hard for me to imagine how the gentle, thoughtful Christian I came to know in Jerry could be the same person who killed a man at a highway rest stop. This happened while he was in the grip of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Jerry was always clear, though, that “No one put me here but me.” But I sensed that a whole web of realities helped land Jerry on death row. He spoke often of his sadness at having killed this man. He told me how he prayed for his victim’s wife and son each day.

Jerry became a Catholic in prison because his many questions about faith, life and God found resonance in the Catholic tradition, and because of his love for Mary, the mother of Jesus. The prison administration refused our request to have Jerry baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil, along with other prisoners. So on the third Sunday of Easter, 1999, we sat in the death row visiting room where we celebrated the Eucharist, received Jerry and confirmed him. In his red death row jump suit, Jerry kept pushing his glasses back toward his eyes which flowed freely with tears. In the midst of clanging doors and laughing guards, we laid hands on him, anointed him with oil and gave him the confirmation name Dismas, the Good Thief.

One of the great sufferings of death row is the day-to-day brutality. Every detail of these men’s lives says to them: “You don’t deserve to live.” It is a myth that there is no justice or punishment exacted until a person is executed. The brutality of the death penalty begins the minute one is sentenced and continues until one is stabbed with a lethal injection. A death row prisoner lives with the knowledge that he or she will be killed in a calculated, planned manner, barring a miracle. This knowledge begins the process of unraveling a life. To be told, at every turn, in every detail, that one “does not deserve to live” is to be destroyed slowly, bit by bit, day in and day out.

As the time of Jerry’s execution approached, I was able to return and spend the last two days with him. We spoke about his family and his sorrows, handled last minute details about his belongings, and mostly prayed. We re-read Jesus’ promise to Dismas: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” I reminded Jerry that God’s love for him was that close, that intimate. He would close his eyes and nod. I told him also, as I had many times before, that the crime which brought him to death row was not the entirety of his life.

During his final hours, Jerry wrote his last statement in which he expressed remorse for his crime and asked for forgiveness.

As the evening drew on, we anointed him with Sacred Chrism. We told Jerry this oil was “strength for the journey.” We made a cross of chrism on his forehead and read the “Jesus remember me” passage again.

When the guards came to the holding cell and told us it was time to leave, I told Jerry that if he needed to see anyone during the execution, he should look at me. I reminded him to keep the words “Jesus remember me” on his lips. He cried and nodded. Finally, I asked him: “Tell God we did our best.” He smiled through tears and said to me, “He knows you did.” Before going through the door I looked back and saw Jerry re-tracing the cross of oil on his forehead.

I sat with the other witnesses in the chapel, including Bishop Dale Melczek of Gary, Ind., who had befriended Jerry, until we were called to go into the execution viewing room. Around midnight a guard came into the chapel to take us back to the death house, through several barred doors, to a room where three rows of chairs sat facing a window whose blinds were shut. We sat there for a few minutes, surrounded by several guards, until the blinds opened. Jerry was lying on the gurney with an I.V. inserted into his left arm which hung off the gurney’s side. His glasses were still on. He looked toward us and smiled. With his arms strapped to the gurney, he managed a small wave of his left hand. It was difficult to tell when the injections began, but after a few moments of stillness, Jerry coughed hard and seemed to be choking. Some of the witnesses gasped. Jerry convulsed and gagged and strained against the straps. Finally, his convulsions stopped, and he was still.

This experience underscored for me the devastation the death penalty inflicts on all involved. Knowing that all life comes from God, as people of faith we must ask ourselves how can we presume to cut short another’s life before God has given every opportunity for conversion? We should put aside fear, put aside thoughts of vengeance, and put a stop to the death penalty.

Joseph Ross is a writer living in Washington.