Hopes deflated for the faithful in death vigil


COLUMBIA — Prayer vigils on the eve of state executions in South Carolina have become regular occasions, but the one held at the St. Thomas More chapel on May 2 was different. It was different because a sense of optimism had been crushed. Some people were angrier than usual and some were sadder. Some wept as they sang hymns.

“We had hoped this would be a service of thanksgiving and celebration,” said Bruce Pearson, a leading advocate in the state for abolishing the death penalty. “Instead, we’re here to repent; we share the guilt of this execution.”

Richard Charles Johnson, 39, was put to death the next day for the 1985 murder of a police officer. Opponents of the death penalty had offered what they considered to be compelling evidence that Johnson may not have been guilty and were expecting Gov. Jim Hodges to grant their clemency request. Pearson, a retired linguistics professor at USC, was more than a little disappointed.

“I had hope. I was really shocked when I got a phone call from (the governor’s) office that clemency had been denied. There are serious questions about his innocence,” he said.

Pringle Fielding, a lawyer who helped make a case for sparing Johnson’s life, was resigned, saying that she and others on the legal team had done all that they could do. They raised doubts about the convict’s guilt and raised support among the black community for clemency. (Johnson is white and the slain trooper, Bruce Smalls, was black.)

Johnson admitted to killing the man who owned the RV he was driving when Smalls pulled him over, but claimed he had no recollection of shooting the policeman. Fielding did call on the crowd of 50 to remember the executed criminal: “Our optimism met with a sad end today. Ricky’s being strong, though; he’s at peace. Don’t let it end here. Don’t let Ricky Johnson’s name be forgotten.”

Her colleague, John Blume, was angry and urged the crowd to remember the execution when they vote in November. He called the governor’s decision “an outrage.”

The candlelight service was led by Gaurav Shroff, pastoral associate at the St. Thomas More Catholic Center, on the campus of the University of South Carolina. There were few students in attendance, a fact that did not surprise Shroff.

“My sense is that our Catholic students seem to generally go along with the rest of the public, which is to favor the death penalty. This man may not be guilty and the church does recognize the right of the state to perform executions …, but my greater concern is that this feeds into cultural violence,” Shroff said.

He was not disappointed with the size of the turnout – which was larger than in the past – because, he said, it’s a mistake to doubt either the power of prayer or the effect that even a small voice can have.

One small voice at the prayer vigil was that of Eleanor Jones, a seventh-grader at Cardinal Newman Middle School. Although none of her classmates attended, she said, “my friends say it’s wrong to be killing others just to judge them.” Jones, 12, thinks it is an act of arrogance to execute murderers.

“I think we should stop trying to be God and start being acceptable to him instead,” she said.

Pearson said that the emotions expressed at the vigil were appropriate.

“The prophets were indignant,” he told the crowd. “People of faith cannot take pleasure in the death of anyone, regardless of what he’s done. So, be indignant about this.”