The Common Good
January-February 1998

Community for a "Dead Man"

by Joe Nangle | January-February 1998

"The hardest part in this is seeing the pain, not only the pain of those I love,
but the pain of everybody involved.

"The hardest part in this is seeing the pain, not only the pain of those I love, but the pain of everybody involved. I am sorry for that pain, I mean really sorry....I have another 10 or 15 minutes before I have to give this pen up. What can be said in 15

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minutes? The fear settles in, the inevitable fear of the unknown. Trust in God, faith that things will be okay. No more words...."

The above comes from a remarkable journal in which Robert Wallace West chronicles his last month—and hours—on death row. Moments after writing those words, he walked to the execution chamber, allowed himself to be strapped down on the gurney, then watched while the "technician" inserted the needles and the fatal injection. Wallace was prounced dead at 6:41 p.m. on July 29, 1997.

Sister Helen Prejean’s riveting book, and subsequent movie, Dead Man Walking, allowed the world to glimpse the rare and quite courageous people who gather around each man and woman sentenced to death in our country. These communities, for they are truly that, ask the same question in the midst of the admittedly complex realities surrounding those who have killed others: What good does capital punishment accomplish?

One of the ways for those who walked with Bobby West (and I have observed one of them, another Catholic sister, Jean Amore, as she corresponded, prayed, and wept with him on his last journey) to ask this central question was by publicizing his journal. The entries, as he nears the inevitable, make compelling reading. One cannot believe how banal and polite is the entire process as seen through this "dead man’s" eyes:

Two hours before execution: "The last meal was served 20 minutes ago, cheeseburger, fries and coke....Chaplain at my door, guards checking every couple minutes, asking if I need anything and taking care of my needs. The AC is getting colder. They have cookies and crackers and fruit juice."

One hour before execution: "Was told about the upcoming parade....They are walking now to the chamber, preparing.... Voices, can hear them talking, going about their business. The door to the death chamber opened and closed, a bright, white neon light pouring from within...."

West’s friends, especially his significant other, take up the account of the death watch:

We were shown into a large room with soda machines along one side....[W]e were told that once inside the witness room we were not permitted to show any outbursts of emotion or we would be ‘removed’....[W]e would be able to talk to the ‘inmate’ [the condemned man] and he’d be able to hear us. Then came the interminable wait.

At 6:29 p.m. the door finally opened....Tall men in Stetsons were laughing and joking in the outer corridor. Women were scurrying around, attending to business...business?

We entered a narrow little room—at the end, through the plexiglass was a small brightly-lit room with Bobby lying strapped down on a gurney, his head to the left looking upwards and the chaplain to the right....Bobby gave me the biggest smile you can imagine. Despite what I was seeing (no words could adequately describe its horror...) I dug my nails into the palms of my hands and smiled back and said ‘I love you, baby’ and he said the same back to me....He turned to the window on the left (where the victim’s family were) and apologized for the pain he’d caused and hoped that this could give them closure....

...[T]hey began to kill him at 6:35 p.m. I kept my eyes focused on Bobby’s breathing, and apart from a slightly throaty noise he made when the first solution was flowing into him, he laid very still throughout....[F]or a split second I imagined smashing the glass, cutting the IV tube and saving him, but in that same instant, I also imagined them carting me away and then continuing with the execution anyway....So I stood there rooted to the spot, unable to do anything but quietly observe this calculated homicide.

THIS IS THE SORT of trauma that those who choose to walk with these "dead men" undergo. The trauma is not occasional. Bobby West was the 132nd inmate in Texas alone to die at the hands of the state since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1977. Each of these cases has given rise to a community of people who suffer through the appeals process, the rescheduling again and again of execution dates, the agony of last days and hours as described above, and the grim finality when the "dead man walks."

These communities also serve another purpose besides accompanying the condemned. Little by little their testimonies, more than all the academic arguments, chip away at the death penalty as an appropriate form of punishment. What possible good is served by such a well-mannered, calculated form of killing? they ask with increasing insistence. Their witness and irrefutable logic will eventually bring the United States into line with every other civilized country in the world, which have long since abolished capital punishment.

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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