Ministering to the Condemned

University Essays: Lesson 7, Reading 1

By Joseph B. Ingle

I am firmly convinced that if the citizens of the United States fully understood the nature and effects of the death penalty, we would no longer allow the punishment to be imposed. Unfortunately, however, many people have been misinformed or have closed their minds about this issue, and the media coverage of executions, if present at all, is steadily shrinking. Furthermore, the media that still provide coverage have continually failed to describe what the inmate is actually like and what he and his family experience during his final hours. We learn about the final meal, the last statement, and the body’s reaction when it is electrocuted, but not about the actual ways in which people experience their own or their loved one’s planned death.

For the last 13 years, I have traveled throughout the South ministering to inmates condemned to death. This work led to the establishment of a prison reform organization called the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, with affiliate offices now located in eight states. In the course of this work, I have formed several close relationships with condemned inmates and their families.

In this essay, I would like to describe David Washington, a man I came to love and respect, and the events surrounding his execution in Florida in July 1984 (Magee, 1980:149-161). David’s crimes were horrible, and I am no less appalled by them than are the strongest death penalty advocates. I do not believe, however, that the Christian command to forgive is a conditional directive; nor does the commandment “thou shalt not kill” add “except in retribution.” David Washington would be happy to know that others, with varying stands on the question of capital punishment, might learn more about death (and life) by hearing a little bit about his final days.

The Person
We called him Pee Wee. It was a nickname coined on the streets of Miami, and one that David Washington brought with him to Florida State Prison’s death row. It was an odd nickname, as he was not a small man – he stood six feet tall and was acknowledged to be one of the best basketball players on death row. His smooth, caramel skin and dark eyes were regularly accompanied by a warm smile. As his many friendships in Miami confirmed, Pee Wee radiated a genuine charm.

The events that sent David to the electric chair involved the deaths of three victims. A product of Liberty City, the black ghetto in Miami, David was a street-wise youth, but he never used his social background as an excuse for his crimes. Rather, he readily admitted his full responsibility to the police and to the courts. He turned himself in to the police, fully cooperated with their investigations, and pleaded guilty. Pee Wee threw himself on the mercy of the court, waiving his right to a jury trail. But the court had no mercy and, in 1976, David was sentenced to three consecutive death sentences.

In my visits with David over the years, I found a deeply troubled soul. He was so distressed over his crimes that occasionally he would sit in his cell in a nearly catatonic state, refusing any outside contacts. If my visit coincided with one of these retreats, he would refuse to come out to see me, and would instead remain in the solace of his cell, reflecting over his crimes and the lives of the people he had murdered, seeking an understanding and forgiveness that could only come from within. In a real sense, David carried these victims with him until the hour of his death. They were his burden to bear, and like most other death-row prisoners I have known, David felt remorse and pain in living with the responsibility for his crime.

When Pee Wee was sociable, his kindness and concern were second to no one else’s in the prison. In a very meaningful sense, he was not the same person who committed those horrible crimes on the streets, indeed, though many will choose not to believe this. I found that David resonated a sweetness of character and true humility. David was not some rabid dog; like the rest of us, he was a unique individual who had both good and bad parts.

David, unlike many people on death row, rarely discussed his legal proceedings with me. He had accepted his guilt on a personal level, and whatever the courts did could not affect those feelings. The guilt and responsibility he experienced were real no matter what any court did to him. Thus, almost all our visits were personal and spiritual in nature. We came to care a great deal for one another, to hate the sin but love the sinner. In the course of one visit, Pee Wee struggled to explain why he had not come out for my last visit: “Joe, I want you to know that it has nothing to do with you. Sometimes I just get back there thinking about those people I killed, and I don’t say nothing to nobody. I just sit there for days, waiting for it all to go through me so I can feel right again.”

In a sense, it was as if all three victims were alive and inhabiting David’s soul. Talking with Pee Wee was often like talking with someone who had lost a family member to murder. David never forgot his victims; his struggle was to accept himself and to learn forgiveness for what he had done, and to try to repay a debt he knew he never could. It was a difficult pilgrimage that Pee Wee had undertaken.

It is often stated that when the lives of the saints are examined, their souls become windowpanes through which we can see God. Saints are able to become transparent so that others can experience or see God through their lives. While David was no saint, his suffering served as a reminder to others on death row, and those of us on the outside who came to know him, of the presence of his victims in our lives. He was a living reminder of the value of life. David became a windowpane through which we could see God acting in the world, working for reconciliation, forgiveness, and the preservation of life. Through him, I reinforced my view that destruction of life, whether in a random street killing or in the electric chair, must be stopped. Responsibility for these needless deaths must be borne by those involved in them; it is only when we come to see our complicity in murder and our responsibility for it that we can move onto the level of a forgiveness and a reconciliation that transcend the wrongful deed. David taught others this painful and difficult lesson by his example as he lived out his days in his 50-square’ foot death-row cell.

Pee Wee arrived on death row in November, 1976. The first person he befriended upon his arrival, the person who took him under a protective wing, was John Spenkelink, who was executed less than three years later. In Pee Wee’s words: “I was ignorant when I came to death row. I didn’t know nothing about it. John Spenkelink spent time with me. He explained the way things worked, introduced me to the guys, eased my way. He was a real friend to me and a lot of the guys. He was quiet, calm – a real leader. If we wanted changes made, we came to John. He made sure things were right.”

I will leave it to other contributors to this volume to explain the struggles faced by men on death row when their close friends are taken to the electric chair. In this case, with the help of John Spenkelink, David became familiar with the routine of death row: the countless hours locked in a cell, with televisions and radios blaring, the loud conversations, the Florida heat, and, worst of all, the waiting and the uncertainty of dealing with impending death and the pain of watching his family trying to cope. Simply sitting there alone, David was unable to explain to himself or to his God why he had murdered. Sometimes he would cry. Weeping for what he had done, he quietly worked his way through his guilt. As the years passed, the suffering he endured was impossible to escape. He did make his peace with God; he had sought forgiveness and knew that although his community could not grant it, his God could. But he could never forget what he had done, so the suffering remained with him. How can any of us live our own lives, or face our death, when there is no way to rectify the errors we have made, and there is no societal support for the forgiveness we ask? Capital punishment dooms all of its victims to death with important unfinished business remaining. It is a lonely death.

Meanwhile, David’s legal situation steadily deteriorated. His case was chosen by the Supreme Court to determine standards for effective assistance of counsel in death penalty cases and, in 1984, the court ruled unfavorably (Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 [1984])- At that time, we were quite sure that David had only a few months to live, and the roller coaster of preparation for death started to accelerate. In mid-June, Governor Bob Graham signed David’s death warrant, setting the execution date for 12 July. It was David’s third death warrant, and thus the third time his possessions were packed and he was moved to a holding cell, under 24-hour personal guard, next to the death chamber.

Life Under a Death Warrant
While there is always uncertainty for those on death row (Radelet et al., 1983), the uncertainty reaches its apex after a death warrant has been issued (roughly a month before the scheduled execution). Condemned inmates on “death watch,” as it is called in Florida, are fortunate because opponents of the death penalty have taken great pains to ensure that the death will not be faced alone. Thus, when I arrived in Florida State Prison on 9 July, three days before the scheduled execution, David was not alone. A paralegal, Margaret, and an attorney who has taken hospice training, Susan, had seen him frequently in the preceding weeks.

The legal prognosis was poor, but still some- what unpredictable. Although we knew that David would probably be put to death, the arbitrariness that characterizes the imposition of the death penalty in Florida (Bowers and Pierce, 1980; Gross and Mauro, 1984;Radelet, 1981; Radeletand-Mello, 1986; Radelet and Pierce, 1985) also seems to characterize the odds of winning an appeal (Radelet and Vandiver, 1983) and of getting a stay of execution once a warrant is signed. If his legal papers were seen by the right judge on the right day, a stay might be granted. Thus, there was reason to hope, but we had to guard against the risk that this hope might cloud David’s ability to deal with the reality of his impending death.

In this case, the unexpected indeed happened. David obtained a stay of execution from the Trial Court on 6 July. However, the state immediately appealed this action to the Florida Supreme Court. This court, in turn, using imperative judicial language, urged the Trial Court to lift its stay. By remanding the case to the Trial Court, the Supreme Court’s message was clear: it’s time to execute David Washington, and let’s get on with it. When I left for the prison on the night of 9 July, we were awaiting a response from the Trial Court judge to this demand.

Before I entered the prison, the Trial Court had acted—and acted in a way that rebuffed the State Supreme Court and underscored the mockery of the ping-pong game the Appellate Courts play with human life. Rather than lift the stay, the trial judge vacated all three death sentences. Thus, as I entered the prison, I found a jovial atmosphere.
During the death watch, at a time when the inmate needs so clearly to be near those who love him (and vice versa), the inmate is separated from his family and friends by a glass barrier (cynics might argue that this barrier creates the impression that his loved ones, rather than the state, are the ones trying to put him to death). Pee Wee and I thus greeted each other by placing our palms on opposite sides of the glass window. He was smiling as I asked him to repeat what his lawyer had just told him on the phone. He relayed the conversation, and I leaned back in my chair and expressed, in relief, disbelief that it had really happened.

As the evening progressed, the effects of being free from the sentence of death for the first time in eight years revealed themselves in Pee Wee. He was light-hearted, joyous, laughing, and teasing. The joy and happiness we experienced had rarely been felt in the bowels of the prison. We did not talk seriously about our fear (indeed, our confidence) that the state would appeal this last ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, but David had a very realistic appraisal of the slim odds he would have if such an appeal was launched. He expected the state to prevail upon appeal, but decided to worry about that prospect when and if it developed. This night, for the first time since we had met, David was unburdened by a death sentence. Along with the volunteer lawyer and paralegal who had come to visit, we celebrated the persistent efforts of his attorneys and David’s freedom from death. As the volunteers and I left the prison two hours later, we radiated David’s joy; seldom have I exited a prison so hopeful and joyous. If only for a few hours, we relished David’s freedom from the manacles of death.

During the 40-mile drive back to Gainesville, we speculated on prospective events in the courts. We all agreed that despite the outstanding work of David’s lawyer, the State Supreme Court would in all likelihood reinstate the death sentences. But it was as if David’s dwelling wholly in the present had communicated itself to us. We would let tomorrow take care of itself; this night was for celebration.

The volunteer paralegal put it best as she described David’s attitude toward adverse legal rulings in his case: “David received news about the legal proceedings very gracefully. He was glad there were people who cared about him and who were making the effort for him, but he had no attachment to the results of what happened in court. He had a tremendous serenity, a kind of holy indifference, as to the outcome of any of the legal proceedings. It was not the most important thing going on with him. He never manifested more than a polite indifference about the legal issues. At the same time, he received news of the legal efforts gratefully but in no way could anything that happened in the court disturb what was happening in him.”

The next evening provided a delightful interlude, as I visited friends who had nothing to do with the death penalty. Regrettably, however, the telephone interrupted our conversation. David’s death sentences had been reinstated by the State Supreme Court. Although expected, the news that I knew would lead to the taking of my friend’s life was piercingly painful.

The Last Visits
The next day, a Federal District Court judge granted David a 24-hour stay of execution; the execution was rescheduled for 7:00 a.m., 13 July. I sought to maintain a façade of indifference to these complicated legal proceedings, as did David, as I ministered to him and his family. We still had hope, but tried to keep that hope from dominating our time together. On the evening of 11 July, the volunteer attorney, the paralegal, and I joined 11 members of David’s family for a visit with him. There were 36 more hours to live. For three hours, we crowded into the non-contact visiting area and talked with him through the glass barrier. Three small children, aged three through five, enlivened the occasion by talking with their uncle through the glass. David teased them, put happy smiles on their faces, and sought to uplift all of our spirits. His stepfather, a quiet and large man, radiated strength for all of us. David’s mother relived some of the memories she shared with her son. David spoke intently to his younger brother, who was clearly having an especially difficult time. At one point, David asked me to take special care in helping his brother make it through the ordeal. Although all the family members suffered, the pain of David’s 12-year-old daughter was perhaps the most visible. She had not seen her dad in years, and she had difficulty expressing her love amid the horror of this occasion. She broke down in tears several times, and it was only David’s constant support and encouragement that kept her intact.

At one point during the visit, I joined David’s brother at a window overlooking the prison parking lot. He was standing, silently crying, while gazing toward the wing that housed the electric chair. As we stood there passively staring, I spoke quietly with him. After several minutes, he stopped crying long enough to tell me that he simply could not take it. I assured him that there was no reason he should; it was an insane situation, and the important thing was to remember David’s request that he not do anything stupid or rash. He nodded and again we stood in silence. He did not return to the prison the following night.

We bade David adieu when our visiting time was expended. We knew that there was to be another day for us and for David. We went over the final visiting plans for the next day, David’s last full day on earth, and parted for the night.

The next evening all of David’s family returned, with the exception of his brother. In contrast to the previous night, when we knew there would be another day, the finality of this night enveloped us all. The three children cried throughout most of the visit, not fully understanding why they and all the adults in the room were so sad. David summoned each of us to the glass to talk privately. In seeking to comfort his loved ones, he poured himself out to each. At one point, he asked Margaret, Susan, and me to come to the glass. As Margaret later recalled: “David said that apart from his family, we had shown him more love than anyone else. He tried to express his gratitude and told us also of his concern for us. He was worried because we were being hit so hard by every execution and personally involved with each one. We immediately let David know how very much he and the other men had given us and that we were doing what we were doing because we wanted to do it. He had given us more than we could ever return to him, and more than the state could ever take away by executing him.”

During the course of the conversation, David mentioned how much this assurance meant to him. I echoed the sentiments, and we talked about love being the uniting reality through life and earth. It was clear that David was comfortable and spiritually at ease.
At midnight, David’s mother and daughter, along with Susan and me, were permitted to have a one-hour contact visit with him. The remainder of the family and Margaret remained on the other side of the glass partition. After each of us hugged him, we sat in chairs around him. As he had done throughout the death warrant, he proceeded to minister to us. He began with his mother: “I ain’t believing this! I ain’t believin’ you’re crying! You’ve always been the strong one -I never expected this. Now come on, we can’t have this. You dry those tears and sit up straight.”

His mother, forcing a smile through her sobs, looked at David and said, “But you’re my baby.” David, his voice catching, almost overcome with tears himself, embraced her despite the handcuffs. There were no words to be said as mother and son hugged each other a final time.

David’s primary concern was for his daughter. He agonized over her having to endure the horror of his execution. He sat her on his lap, her lanky body draping his. She was crying openly, the tears streaming down her face, and David spoke to her: “I want you to make me proud. I don’t want you messin’ up like I did. You listen to your grandmother and do what she tells you. I want you to do better than I did. I didn’t listen, and you see what happened to me. Now I want you to get your books – to study. School is important and I want you to do well. Don’t you be makin’ the mistakes I did, thinkin’ school wasn’t important.”

As Pee Wee spoke softly to his daughter, he wiped her tears away. I sat in my chair, stricken by the pathos of the moment. Father was saying goodbye to daughter, imparting advice to help her survive in this world after his death. He was trying to leave a legacy to stand with her through the years. As I looked at his daughter’s stricken face, gazed at his mother with her handkerchief crumpled to hide her tears, I heard a soft sobbing, I looked to the window and there, peering through the glass, was the three-year-old niece. Her face was pressed against the glass, a river of tears flowing down her cheeks. As I saw her and felt her tears, I realized that she and I were equally unable to fathom the events at hand. Neither of us, though bearing witness to the final parting, was able to understand it. Why was Pee Wee going to his death? Why was this unnecessary pain deemed necessary by our fellow citizens? The dispenser of so much love and grace, the sufferer of such grief, was going to be taken from those who loved him. Was the only thing our society could do for the families of homicide victims to double the number of innocent families who experience the tragic loss of a loved one?

Soon it was almost one o’clock, and we were saying our final goodbyes. We knew that David would be put to death in six hours. David once again thanked us for our friendship. As we filed out the door, each of us hugged him one last time. The guards handcuffed David’s hands behind his back and led him down the hallway. As David was led away, I gazed about me. His daughter was sobbing in Susan’s firm embrace, watching her father leave for the last time, shouting, “Please don’t kill my daddy.” The small children were near hysterics, his mother’s shoulders were heaving with sorrow, and his stepfather tried to comfort us all. As David neared the door that would take him from us, I called down the prison corridor, “We love you,” and several others echoed these words. David looked back over his shoulder, looking at this family for the last time. His expression was tender and sorrowful. His gaze rendered us speechless, and a gentle smile creased his smooth face. Then he was gone.

We remained transfixed. None of us moved. It was as if by holding the moment, by not moving, we could retain David with us. We stood planted in the middle of the prison corridor like fixtures. Then a prison colonel, the head of the execution team, entered the hall and walked through our midst. The spell was broken, and we stumbled to the parking lot, wailing, grief-stricken, and inconsolable. Society’s retribution had produced a family bereaved, a wounded child, and another mourning mother.

The only conclusion I can offer from the above case, and from the many others like it that remain untold, is that capital punishment takes the lives of people who can be quite remarkable despite their appalling crimes, and that its pains touch many more people than the individual inmate himself. It is a punishment done in all our names, and although crimes of the prisoner have caused immense suffering to the innocent, I fail to see how that suffering is alleviated by creating a whole new family of innocent people who mourn the loss of a loved one.

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202/537-1372.