SPOKANE, Wash. -- They stood in front of a shopping mall, shackled together, heads down, nameplates dangling around their necks, bearing the names of men and women who have died on America’s death row.
Cameron Todd Willingham.
Behind them, stood Victoria Ann Thorpe, dark makeup painted on her cheeks and a sign painted to look like blood stains waving above her head: “Their blood is on our hands.”
Somehow, despite Thorpe’s gory exterior, she’s approachable.
“Would you like information on the death penalty?” she asks shoppers as they exit the mall, unable to avert their eyes from the scene in front of them. She hands them a clipboard and one by one, they fill out postcards showing their support to abolish the death penalty in Washington. The cards will later be sent to state lawmakers. The group has also protested at Gonzaga University and so far has collected more than 200 signatures.
Thorpe, along with the Safe and Just Alternatives organization and The Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group, is seeking to pass a state law to replace the death penalty in Washington state with life without parole.
Some passersby wave Thorpe away. Some argue.
“The Bible says eye for an eye,” says one man, clutching a novel by Frank Peretti, a popular Christian fiction author.
“I understand sir, but…”
He interrupts, anger rising, “If you want to let them all go, then you can’t complain when they come into your house and kill you!”
He storms away.
What the man doesn’t know is that Thorpe’s older sister, Kerry Lyn Dalton, has been on California’s death row for almost 18 years. (On Nov. 6, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that will decide whether to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.)
Thorpe remembers when she got that phone call in 1992.
“Vickie, I been arrested for something -- something real bad … You’ll see it in the paper but don’t believe it! Not any of it!,”
Kerry, a methamphetamine addict, had called for help before. But this was different. Her words were mumbled. Her voice was nasally. She was hysterical.
“They say I -- I -- I killed someone.”
Thorpe writes about the phone call in her new book, “Cages” where she tells the story of her troubled childhood and her sister’s murder trial. She also writes about her own spiritual transformation from “Bible toting right-wing Christian…(who) wore long loose dresses and sensible shoes” to a survivor of spiritual abuse, forging her own divine path.
“Women were worthless in my family, absolutely worthless,” she recalls.
Today, she considers herself a spiritual person, but not somebody who subscribes to a particular denomination -- anything that stands for compassion is something she can support, she says.
There’s no evidence of such fragmented confidence when Thorpe speaks publicly about her sister, about “Cages,” or about the injustices of the death penalty. With a tender smile she responds to all questions and contentions.
No, she says, the death penalty isn’t a violent crime deterrent.
No, she says, life without parole isn’t more expensive than an execution.
No, she says, her sister didn’t kill Irene "Melanie" Louise May.
Dalton was accused of torturing and murdering May in 1988 at a mobile home park in Live Oak Springs, California. She was arrested in 1992, convicted of first degree murder in 1995, and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
In “Cages,” Thorpe explains that her sister was sentenced based on hearsay evidence. According to court records, Dalton allegedly killed May using a cast-iron frying pan, a knife and a syringe filled with battery acid. But there was no crime scene, she notes. No evidence. Not even a dead body; May was never found.
Thorpe, who spent three years writing “Cages” and has re-read the 4,000 page court transcript again and again, maintains that her sister was wrongly accused as a way to get attention off the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, which had been unable to solve a series of serial murders in the area.
“By the end of the book I think there should be a sinking feeling of ‘Oh, wait a minute, how’d they convict her?’” Thorpe says.
Dalton is still waiting for her first appeal.
“My viewpoint used to be that the system was wonderful and perfect and only out for justice,” Thorpe said in interview. “I thought the district attorney was the truth seeker. And I thought prosecutors were looking for the truth. Nope.”
Thorpe, of course, wants her sister’s case re-examined. But, she says, even if her sister were guilty, “I wouldn’t want her tortured in a cage, waiting to be killed, like she is now.”
And Dalton literally is living in a cage -- nine cells with a ‘cage’ over it where she lives with 19 other women at the Central California’s Women’s Facility. (Some of the women sleep outside of the cage because of space limitations). The special enclosure was built in 1991 when the first women were sent there to await execution.
“It’s just like a zoo cage. It’s heavy mesh with a metal roof. Nobody goes in, and nobody goes out,” Thorpe described.
The death penalty is legal in 33 states, including Washington, which has seven people “on the row.” But there has been an increased focus on the justice of the system. Since 1992, 15 death row inmates have been wrongfully accused and released back into society, according to The Innocence Project.
Thorpe believes there are numerous innocent people in prison, but says that’s not the only reason why she wants the death penalty abolished. She says the death penalty is itself an evil that ruins lives by promoting revenge.
‘The death penalty doesn’t work, we cannot reconcile the past,” she said. “It stigmatizes the convicted as monsters, allowing us not to think of them as humans, taking away the guilt … and allowing the state to kill another human being.”
Jesus, she says, wouldn’t stand for such a thing.
“Nothing that he did or said can be manipulated into harshness. He’s an example of a loving human being,” she said, adding that people need to learn a convict’s story, before judging them.
“I believe good is at the heart of everything and love is at the heart of everything and pain and hate comes from hurt and injury.”
Photo credit: Victoria Ann Thorpe protests against the death penalty outside of a Spokane mall. Credit: RNS photo by Tracy Simmons/Spokane Faith and Values