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Dead Man Not Praying 

The state wants to deny religious counsel immediately before executions. But why?

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
It's not a church, exactly, but it is certainly a congregation that meets at the visiting salon in the ancient stone and concrete building at the eastern tip of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

There's Georgia Lyga, the former Catholic nun who drives down from Sacramento. She sees these meetings as an important part of her Christian witness, but it's "the hardest thing I ever do," she acknowledges.

There's Bruce Bramlett, the San Rafael Episcopalian priest who, though nobody pays him, considers these gatherings part of of his pastoral duty. "There aren't a lot of other distractions. There's noth-ing else to talk about. You get down to business, and the business is the busi-ness of spiritual growth and spiritual life," he says.

And then there's Peggy Harrell, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, who has subjected herself to heartbreak, disrespect, even humiliating strip searches, to be with condemned inmates on San Quentin State Penitentiary's death row.

Harrell, Lyga, and Bramlett are among the combatants in a vigorous battle between the government of California and the handful of religious people who feel called to act as spiritual advisers to inmates awaiting execution. For these people, ministering to condemned inmates fulfills the essence of Christ's teachings to choose mercy over revenge, to love enemies, and to forswear all violence.

But in a case now being heard by the California Supreme Court, the state Attorney General's Office is attempting to deny death row prisoners the accompaniment of advisers during the final moments before the death penalty is administered. The case pits Harrell -- whose lawyers have sued seeking to allow her to give communion during a prisoner's final minutes of life -- against the Department of Corrections, which wants to expand the amount of time it can prepare for execution without outsiders present. If the state is successful, the spiritual advisers would be denied the right to comfort the condemned during what many say is religion's most crucial hour.

The Department of Corrections believes the presence of spiritual advisers in the hours immediately preceding an execution is a practical, not an emotional, matter. Although the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion, the state feels jailers have a countervailing need to maintain order during the high-stress time surrounding an execution.

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 says 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, they can use prison chaplains.

Deputy Attorney General Susan Duncan Lee, who is representing the California Department of Corrections on this case, would not specify exactly what type of disruption the government expects these members of the clergy to create. But she says "it's a very, very real danger from what has been explained to me; tension is palpable on the eve of an execution.

"It really does exist, but what the nature of the threat is, only the human heart knows."

Harrell's supporters say the state government's struggle in this lawsuit is yet another step in an ongoing process to strip the condemned of their humanity, and to turn execution into an impersonal medical procedure. Killing with a clear conscience becomes more difficult in the presence of clergy, these people say. To suggest that an inmate's preferred spiritual adviser can be swapped at the last minute with another of the state's choosing belies the nature of religious belief, Harrell's supporters say.

"It's got to be the only way a human being can cope with this, to suspend disbelief and to deal in real time with what you're doing," says Jack Moynihan, an attorney with the law firm Morrison & Foerster, which is defending Harrell. "I think that is one of the really disturbing things about having a spiritual adviser in this -- someone with a Bible -- a focal point of this process. If I were a corrections officer, that would be a deeply disturbing person to have in this process. But we think it's a constitutionally mandated presence."

Adds Michael Kroll, an East Bay investigator who focuses on death row cases: "Prison officials are trained, retrained, and constantly rehearse a process that ends in someone's death. One job, for example, is to strap someone into a gurney. Any distraction in that robotized, mechanical process creates human difficulties, emotional difficulties."

The current case, which stems from the execution last year of convicted murderer Thomas Thompson, is the latest in a series of lawsuits waged between spiritual advisers and the California Department of Corrections. Every time a prisoner who has requested outside religious support has been executed, the state of California has sued for permission to isolate the prisoner during the period before execution. Now, the attorney general is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the precedent set by its 1996 ruling that Harrell could stay with an inmate she was comforting until "final preparations for removal of [the inmate] from the area of the holding cell to the execution chamber."

If the state wins, advisers will be required to leave prisoners at 11:15 p.m., 45 minutes before execution -- not quite Warden Calderon's favored six hours, but a lifetime in the minds of religious clergy who visit death row.

"I guess the simple answer is, no one should die alone," says Bramlett. "More importantly, no one should die bereft of any symbol of care and love and human connection."

The issue of outside spiritual advisers gained national attention a few years ago with Susan Sarandon's Oscar-winning portrayal of Catholic nun Helen Prejean in the movie Dead Man Walking. Prejean, who drew from her own experiences to write a best-selling book the movie was based on, now tours the country as a lecturer opposing capital punishment.

But California anti-death penalty activists say Margaret Harrell is the unsung hero of the movement to provide death row inmates with the spiritual life of their choosing. She has been providing counsel to those death row inmates who prefer not to be counseled by prison-staff chaplains since the 1980s, before California had killed any of its condemned criminals. Since then she has provided succor to death row inmates such as Thompson and Keith Daniel Williams, and is now giving comfort to Jaturn Siripongs, the former Buddhist monk of Thai origins convicted in 1983 of killing two people in Orange County. He is scheduled to be executed Feb. 9. But new questions about evidence used at trial have been raised. Members of his alleged victims' families, the Thai ambassador to the U.S., and anti-death penalty advocates around the world have written letters requesting clemency for Siripongs. Gov. Gray Davis is now scheduled to hear a clemency petition.

Unlike the cooperation between Louisiana prison officials and Sister Prejean portrayed in Dead Man Walking, Harrell's presence has been resisted by California jailers at every step of her decadelong effort to accompany condemned inmates, Harrell's supporters say.

While aiding Williams, she even had to file a lawsuit in order to go to the bathroom, her attorney recalls.

"Reverend Harrell wasn't allowed to use a restroom [on the night of Williams' execution]. She wasn't allowed to have water. ... The attorney general indicated they were not willing to accord those rights to Reverend Harrell, and Harrell again went in for injunction in Superior Court. That request was granted," says Moynihan.

Harrell's lawyers also sued to allow her to stay with Williams until he was about to be executed. Prison policy had been that she leave six hours before the 12:01 a.m. execution. In response to the court's order, prison officials removed Harrell from the cell adjacent Williams' at 11:15 p.m. This was 20 minutes earlier than necessary, Harrell's lawyers complained.

Last year, Harrell asked the Department of Corrections if she could give communion to Thomas M. Thompson as "near to the time of the execution as possible." This, Harrell's filings say, "conformed with Christian practice."

The department rejected her request, insisting again that the extra time could compromise security. Harrell again sued, and the state Supreme Court forced the jailers to allow Harrell to stay in a cell next to Thompson until the moment he was taken into the execution chamber.

The state's attorneys are now suing to rescind the court order, and are questioning the state Supreme Court's jurisdiction in the matter. If the Supreme Court order stands, these attorneys say, a precedent could be created routinely allowing spiritual advisers to stay with inmates until their final hour. Myriad problems could ensue, Deputy Attorney General Lee says.

"If there were a rule, one would have to be concerned about people who claim to believe in religions they don't really believe in, or those who believe in religions that might be disruptive," Lee says.

Such as?
"Satanism," she explains. "I think Satanism is a particular concern, because of the unusual rites that are understood to be associated with that."

This security concern has been shown to be bogus in both the Williams and Thompson executions, Moynihan complains.

"There's a huge amount of security. They're thoroughly searched, they're constantly watched. Reverend Harrell is subject to a full-body strip search, and is constantly under the supervision of two correctional officers," he says. "When I talk to other people about this case, and people ask, 'What is it about?' and people ask, 'Why on earth does the state of California litigate on this?' I don't have an answer. I pay taxes in California, and it bothers me. It's really a dirty little secret out there."

To Bramlett, the reason is clear: Because they interrupt the routine of state executions by ministering to the condemned, the cadre of spiritual advisers who congregate at San Quentin's visiting salon have become enemies of the state.

"The system doesn't want us there. It doesn't want a Peggy Harrell there, because we humanize the system. We call attention to the question that these creatures behind bars, these monsters behind bars, are actually human," Bramlett says. "Because the objective of the prison system is to dehumanize these people so that it's easier to kill them, anything we do to humanize these human beings is resisted vitally.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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