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A Walk in the Dark 

The rest of the country is re-appraising the death penalty; California sues to keep a minister from comforting those facing execution

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
The avant-garde opera Dead Man Walking -- based on Sister Helen Prejean's saga of spiritual redemption on Louisiana's death row -- so packed the War Memorial Opera House that the San Francisco Opera added an additional performance to the seven that were planned. On opening night, public television filmed the movie star-packed audience inside, and journals from Time to the Financial Times described the work as a prominent addition to America's operatic canon. On the street outside, demonstrators held candles in a silent protest against capital punishment. Helen Prejean, who attended along with movie director Tim Robbins and actors Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, joined the protesters after the performance. "I belonged with them," she said.

A few days later, Sister Prejean packed into Grace Cathedral, joining members of the Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant and other clergy for a service that sought an end to capital punishment.

As a way of suggesting that a society that conspires to kill its own members weakens under the moral weight of this choice, Buddhist Rev. Alan Senauke said, "All beings tremble in the face of violence."

Commenting on the across-the-board rejection of capital punishment by major U.S. religions, Grace Cathedral's Episcopal Bishop William Swig said, "We don't believe in a God who desires the death of sinners."

And when Sister Prejean took the podium, the moral authority she has amassed since her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize last year (although she didn't win, she had been the favorite of peace groups, human rights organizations, and 1998 laureates John Hume and David Trimble) filled the cavernous space under the cathedral's gothic ceilings.

"Dead Man Walking has been a gift of reflection to this county," said Prejean. "All you do when you kill for killing is repeat the violence."

It comes as a sad irony, then, that as the world exalts this Catholic nun for her role in providing spiritual advice to death row inmates, the state of California is still harassing a woman whom Sister Helen Prejean considers one of her greatest comrades in arms.

Margaret Harrell of San Rafael -- who has served as spiritual advisor to California death row inmates for more than a decade, at last count seeing 10 prisoners on a regular basis -- has long suffered invasive strip searches, among other indignities, when she visits San Quentin's death row. But in 1997, Harrell, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, began a legal battle with the state, which was trying to force spiritual advisors to leave the condemned long before execution. Harrell sued when condemned murderer Tommy Thompson was to die. She wanted to give communion to prisoners during the final moments before death. For many who are religious, this is life's most crucial instant, the last when salvation is attainable.

The state's position -- that it endangers prison personnel to allow Harrell to present prisoners with their last rites -- was forged under former Attorney General Dan Lungren, a man so noted for his tolerance of inmate abuse that the FBI was forced to investigate California prisons because the state's own attorney general refused to.

Lungren, a Republican, is gone now. But the California Attorney General's Office under Democrat Bill Lockyer presses on with the campaign against Margaret Harrell, and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis marches right along. State attorneys continue to meet their filing deadlines. They keep up with appeals. They respond to petitions. They make the appropriate motions. In doing so, these state lawyers continue to back the claims of the Department of Corrections, which contends that Harrell's presence at the side of a condemned inmate would disrupt the smooth functioning of an execution, and even present a security risk.

If the state wins, advisers will be required to leave death row prisoners at 11:15 p.m., 45 minutes before execution -- not quite the six hours of separation favored by San Quentin, but a lifetime in the minds of clergy wishing to offer last rites.

The prison needs to keep death row inmates isolated from religious advisers for several hours before a lethal injection is given, San Quentin Warden Arthur Calderon asserts in court filings, to ensure the safety of guards, inmates, and the condemned men themselves. If these inmates wish to have spiritual advisers present during the final moments before they die, the state's legal filings say, the inmates can use prison chaplains.

This is double nonsense, of course. Spiritual advisors can't be swapped like prison smocks. And the state may be -- just may be -- overstating its security problem in regard to the diminutive Margaret Harrell. In an unrelated case this spring dealing with last rites for the condemned, one federal judge went so far as to describe the "transparent weakness of the state's security concerns" related to denying death row inmates their spiritual wishes, calling the concerns "implausible."

So our state government finds itself in the appalling position of harassing and obstructing the religious witness of a clergywoman whom Prejean and others consider a spiritual guiding light, a Gandhian great soul.

As astonishing as this policy may be, it represents part of a running theme with Governor Gray Davis. Davis has positioned himself as an uncompromisingly craven panderer to the public's perceived desire for barbaric yet meaningless "tough-on-crime" gestures. He was an outspoken backer of this spring's Proposition 21, which now allows the state to condemn children to lethal injection. His parole board has drawn criticism nationwide for its blanket refusals of parole requests, effectively nullifying that institution's role. He has voiced strong support for California's Three Strikes law, which condemns pizza thieves and bicycle stealers and shoplifters, among others, to lifetime incarceration, and which judges, virtually to a number, have condemned.

And earlier this month, Davis, for the second year running, vetoed a bill that would have eased journalists' access to inmates in the state prison system. In so doing, he has taken away the public's right to know what's going on inside the walls of one of the largest prison systems in the world -- a system that will spend more than $4.4 billion of your taxes this year. Obscuring what goes on inside one of our state's largest bureaucracies -- a bureaucracy proven time and again to be fraught with abuse -- served no social principle whatsoever. It did, however, serve a political purpose; it helped Davis begin to pay back the $2 million in campaign contributions that California's prison guard union has given to the governor.

Of all the meaningless, brutal, anti-crime gestures that exist, the California death penalty has been the most hallowed, and one of the most politically potent. It's no wonder that Gray Davis and Bill Lockyer would support it, and do nothing to stop the harassment of Maggie Harrell.

But attitudes toward the death penalty may be changing, at least outside the governor's office.

According to a July Field poll, three of four Californians question the penalty's fairness, and support a moratorium until the cases of the 560 inmates now on death row can be reviewed through DNA and other testing. This shift in public perception follows a rash of evidence nationwide that the death penalty is arbitrarily imposed, with strong implications that innocent people are executed every year.

The Republican governor of Illinois halted executions after a Northwestern University study showed frequently sloppy jurisprudence in capital-crime convictions there. It is hardly the only evidence that innocent people are being sentenced to death.

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment could be constitutional, 82 prisoners who were condemned to death around the country have been released from death row after new evidence showed they were innocent. In other words, the conviction of one out of every seven condemned men was overturned during that period, with the number of exonerations nearly doubling during the past six years, largely because of advances in DNA testing.

Meanwhile, new data show what criminologists have long suspected: The death penalty is meaningless as a deterrent against crime. The 12 states that chose in 1976 not to enact the death penalty have not suffered from increased homicide rates as a result.

Still, last year 98 prisoners were executed nationwide, the highest number in 48 years. This year the total will grow to the greatest number since the years just following the Civil War.

Within the span of a year, debate about the death penalty has shifted from discussions about the morality of capital punishment to one about the efficacy of our machinery of death. Yet in California, there have been no legislative gestures toward halting executions. Our courts keep condemning people to death, and lining them up for execution, even though killing them will not stop others from murdering.

Although I understand the power of the non-deterrence argument against capital punishment, I think the moral debate on the subject is more interesting. The wisdom of taking an eye for an eye has been pondered by philosophers and poets through time.

For Albert Camus, the only person truly deserving of the death penalty would have been a murderer who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and then convinced the victim, for years, that he was at the murderer's mercy.

"Such a monster is not encountered in private life," the French philosopher wrote.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda likewise mused against the death penalty:
May the bad not kill the good. Nor the good kill the bad.
I am a poet, without any bias
I say without doubt or hesitation
There are no good assassins.

With these thoughts in mind, I've spent the past 19 months seeking to speak with Margaret Harrell. I've spoken with several of her friends. I've consulted her attorney several times. I wanted to write an SF Weekly cover story, a profile about the courage involved in submitting to periodic strip searches for years while entering the saddest place on this earth, and consoling men who have led wicked lives.

Ms. Harrell's friends sent my messages along. Harrell's lawyer has beseeched her on my behalf more than once, telling her I was someone who might be trusted, and that I might help her cause. But I have never found Margaret Harrell. She says her witness is a personal one, that to reveal what happens between her and an inmate would invade the sanctity of the inmate's spiritual life.

I have imagined keeping vigil outside San Quentin on death row visiting days, and running up to her just before guards let her in. I would tell her that I want more people to know about her courage, and about the righteousness of her struggle.

I know it would be wrong to invade her privacy in that way, so I won't.

Still, it would be nice if her decency, and her work, were somehow honored. Perhaps, in this season of public reassessment of the death penalty, we, the People of California, could quietly forget to pursue the case against Peggy Harrell one ridiculous moment further.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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