Death Row Conversion

Traditional opponents of capital punishment have gained powerful and unlikely allies: American Catholics, many of them conservatives defending a ?culture of life.?

Photo: Ethan Hill

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ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH IN RALEIGH, North Carolina, is nothing like the grand cathedrals of Catholicism past. With its cinder block walls, translucent windows, and exposed-beam ceiling, the nine-year-old structure is about as plain as a Quaker meetinghouse. The design is intended to put the focus on those who attend, says Father Mark Reamer, head pastor at the church, rather than on statues and stained glass. To that end, the pews are staggered, an arrangement Reamer calls “confrontational seating,” so parishioners have nowhere to hide. “We are not distracted by our surroundings,” he says. “Instead, we’re confronted with one another.”

Perhaps the most pronounced expression of this philosophy—in evidence at a late-morning Mass in September—is the practice every Sunday of asking the congregation to “pray for Jeff Meyer,” a parishioner who was found guilty of murder and condemned to death in 1988, as well as “for those who live with him on North Carolina’s death row, and for the victims of violence.” At the September service, the congregation replied dutifully, “Lord, hear our prayer.” The moment passed quickly, with no discernible reaction among those gathered. Yet the presence of the Meyer family at St. Francis has led the church to become one of the most active Catholic congregations in the country in opposing the death penalty. “We said, ‘This is one of our own, a good person who has done a horrendous thing,’ ” Reamer recalls. “ ‘We need to stand by our family.’ ” That conviction has vexed some and converted others among the 14,000 parishioners who call St. Francis their spiritual home. It has spurred a range of social and political activism at the parish and helped nudge North Carolina toward the nation’s first legislated moratorium on the death penalty in modern history. “What they are doing down there is quite remarkable,” says Frank McNeirney, national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, a Maryland-based group devoted to abolishing the death penalty. “They are really in the forefront of the Catholic movement.”

St. Francis is further along than most parishes in its commitment to the cause, but by no means alone; similar efforts may soon be commonplace. Last spring, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the public face of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States—launched an unprecedented education drive aimed at churches and schools, as well as a lobbying effort in state legislatures and the halls of Congress, to end capital punishment nationwide. “It used to seem so daunting to even think about trying to end the death penalty,” says Andy Rivas, policy adviser for the conference. “Now we see that it can happen, and it will, sooner rather than later.”

Anti-death-penalty sentiment has long been a staple among liberals within the church, many of whom also support abortion rights. But the growing opposition is being fueled in large part by churches like St. Francis, among congregants who are likely to follow the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Until his death last spring, the pope argued to Catholics around the world that an end to the death penalty is an essential part of a “culture of life” that would also halt birth control, stem-cell research, abortions, human cloning, and euthanasia.

The pope’s approach established common cause between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, who are similarly inclined on “pro-life” issues, except—and it is a deeply held exception—the death penalty. “God himself instituted capital punishment as a remedy for certain crimes, at the very least murder,” says Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Convention. “All life is so sacred that anyone who takes it is required to pay the same penalty.” Duke says he is well aware of the Catholic Church’s anti-death-penalty push and that Southern Baptists have “respectfully agreed to disagree.”

For the first time in years, the bishops’ annual Respect Life Month mailing in October included a discussion of the death penalty and featured a letter of opposition from Denver archbishop Charles J. Chaput, one of the church leaders who, during the presidential campaign, urged parish priests to deny communion to Catholics who favor abortion rights, including John Kerry. The “respect life” letter does not call for similar sanctions against politicians who back capital punishment, but the bishops were planning at their annual gathering in November to draft their first statement against capital punishment in 25 years.

As more Catholics question the death penalty, the split from their brethren on the Christian right is becoming more pronounced, changing the politics of a bedrock issue. It presents a particular challenge for parishes like St. Francis, where many congregants consider themselves conservative and struggle to follow the church’s teaching on capital punishment. “With the death penalty, the argument is that they weren’t innocent,” Reamer says. “They chose to commit a murder, and we’re talking about the innocent unborn.” But, echoing the language of the late pope, Reamer says the solution is not an either/or approach. “We need to look at all of the creation of life together,” he says. “We can’t really separate one from the other.” Versions of that thinking have appeared on the national political stage. Whether the effect is attributable to idealism or political calculation, some prominent officials appear to have been swayed. Senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania and a devout Catholic, leads a catechism class for his colleagues on the Hill (nearly 30 percent of all members of Congress are Roman Catholic). He is an outspoken defender of the death penalty but this spring qualified his support, saying there “probably should be some further limits on what we use it for.” Santorum’s comments were soon followed by those of Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a fellow conservative Catholic, who told U.S. News & World Report that “if we’re trying to establish a culture of life, it’s difficult to have the state sponsoring executions.” He suggested eliminating taxpayer funding for abortions and executions.

“Not so long ago you couldn’t get anyone to express doubts about the death penalty,” says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center and himself a Catholic. “Then you have this Catholic voice coming in, and coming in loudly, and saying, ‘This is our issue, too, and we are firmly against it.’ It sounds like something you might hear from the left wing, but Pope John Paul was hardly a radical. And so the debate changes. It becomes about the merits of the issue rather than some fringe idea.”

Death-penalty abolitionists seem willing to accept the rightward tilt of these potential adherents. “The church brings a strong moral voice to the issue,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It is welcome and it is timely. This is the time to push.”


IN 1995, SHORTLY AFTER REAMER arrived at St. Francis as an associate pastor, he was sent across town to visit some inmates on North Carolina’s death row. As he was led deeper into the prison, a feeling of dread and isolation overcame him. “My first time going in was just horrifying,” he says. “All these sally ports, it was really kind of scary, not knowing what I was getting into, who these people were.” One of the first condemned men he met was Jeff Meyer, a “calm and peaceful man,” Reamer says, “who was eager for human interaction.” Reamer returned frequently and eventually began celebrating Mass once a week for a small group of the condemned. As time went on, Reamer became an important link between Meyer in prison and his family at church. Though Reamer is allowed physical contact with Meyer, the inmate’s family is not. “I can touch Jeff, hug him, shake his hand,” Reamer says. “I can embrace him, and I can embrace his mother, but they can’t embrace each other.”

The priest knew nothing of Meyer’s crime. “I never ask the men on death row about their cases,” he says. “I guess I’d rather know them for who they are.” Meyer was sentenced to death in 1988, before Reamer arrived at St. Francis. But when a violation of courtroom protocol led to a new sentencing trial in 1999, Reamer sat with the Meyer family during the proceeding. He learned that in December of 1986, Jeff Meyer and a fellow soldier stationed at the U.S. Army base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, disguised themselves in ninja suits and broke into the house of an elderly couple, intending to rob them. Startled by the husband, Meyer shot him with a blowgun and then stabbed him to death with a butterfly knife. The pair then stabbed the victim’s wife to death and fled with jewelry, credit cards, and a television. “It was very painful to hear about,” Reamer says.

But sitting in the courtroom as the case unfolded, Reamer was certain that the community’s pain would only be compounded by executing Meyer. When the jury imposed a death sentence, Reamer was despondent. “I remember thinking, how could 12 people do this?” he says. “I certainly don’t advocate opening the prison doors and letting everyone out, but this was real hard for me.”

In most polls of the general public, between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans say they support the death penalty. Until recently, it was generally believed that Catholic sentiment mirrored those figures. Then, last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned its own poll, which brought back astonishing results: Catholics split about evenly on the issue, with just under half opposed and a nearly identical number in favor (a small percentage were undecided). Furthermore, most of the respondents who opposed the death penalty were regular churchgoers, and two-thirds of Catholics who attend daily Mass said they oppose capital punishment.

According to some analyses, these traditional Catholics, who are likely to subscribe to the entire “culture of life” approach, were responsible for George Bush’s reelection last November. By posing its arguments within the matrix of the abortion debate, the church has enlisted in a favorite cause of the left without becoming itself more liberal. The bishops’ conference is counting on these traditional Catholics to lead the abolition effort at the grassroots level, especially because the campaign comes at a sensitive time for the church as it struggles to recover its moral authority in the wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal. “The one thing we feel very strongly about is that when people talk about the death penalty, we win,” says Rivas. “We have the moral arguments that can change people’s minds.”

Nowhere is that effort more crucial than in the South, which carried out nearly 75 percent of the nation’s executions in 2004. North Carolina’s death row is the seventh largest in the country, housing 177 offenders. North Carolina is also home to the nation’s third-largest concentration of Southern Baptists, who play a significant role in state and local politics. In this environment, religion is a crucial factor in the push for abolition, says Stephen Dear, director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, based in Carrboro, North Carolina. “We can’t, and never will, abolish the death penalty in the South unless we have religious communities involved,” says Dear, who is Catholic. “We need to talk the language and culture of the South.” Catholics are particularly well suited to the task, says John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Southerners are culturally conservative, and many of the Catholics who are appearing in the South are culturally conservative as well,” he says. “Because of that conservatism, in some respects they fit in very well with the ethos of the region. That gives them an opportunity to effect change in other areas.”

North Carolina’s Catholic population is small (just 4 percent of the total), but it more than doubled in the 1990s and continues to burgeon, reflecting a larger trend of the migration of Catholics from the Northeast and Midwest and Latin America to the South and Southwest. St. Francis of Assisi, an affluent parish on the outskirts of Raleigh, has gone from a small church and a couple of outbuildings in 1987 to a rambling, 35-acre campus, a staff of 30, and an elementary school with nearly 600 students. Judging from a packed house at a recent Sunday Mass, most of its members are white, and the social-justice language employed in the parish bulletin suggests a liberal bent. (“We reach out in a special way to those who hunger and thirst for human dignity: the poor, suffering, and oppressed people in our community and in our world.”) But Reamer, like many of his parishioners, is uncomfortable with party labels. “I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat,” Reamer says. “It’s too complex to fit into a category.”

Shortly after Jeff Meyer’s trial, Reamer worked the case into one of his homilies. “Many parishioners were surprised,” he says. “They knew we were praying for Jeff, but back then we didn’t say why, so many people assumed he had AIDS.” Reamer and the other priests at St. Francis agreed to clarify the prayer and include the other inmates on death row. That version did not sit well with some congregants, who felt it ignored the victims. They, too, are now included in the prayer. As the prayer evolved, so did the congregation, grappling with an issue that Reamer says goes to the very core of his mission as a Franciscan friar. “One of our imperatives is to embrace society’s outcasts,” he says. “Those who are on death row are being judged by one act in their lives. They are seen as disposable, and therefore we execute them. They need our compassion.”

With a membership estimated as high as 67 million, Roman Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the United States, accounting for about 25 percent of the population. Within that group exists a great deal of contention on a wide array of morally grounded issues. Some Catholics advocate a social-justice approach to faith, rooted in a ’60s-style community activism and aid for the poor and disadvantaged; others espouse a focus on introspection. “It’s very difficult for the Catholic Church to speak for all of its parishioners, because they are very likely to disagree,” says Green. “Not only with the church but with each other.”

That sort of disagreement is apparent at St. Francis. “There are many, many good people in this world,” says Vince Clark, a retired marketing executive who has been a member of St. Francis for 15 years. “Unfortunately, there are also evil people, and those evil people need to be executed.” The Catholic Church traditionally condoned executions, most infamously by burning heretics at the stake. In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III ordered naysayers to sign a document declaring, in part, that “the secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood.” Those who refused faced excommunication and death. Even now, official church teaching stops short of prohibiting the death penalty, saying that it is permissible in rare cases when the safety of society is threatened. This exception causes some Catholic abolitionists great dismay. “The wording leaves the theoretical exception there,” says Dear. “People drive a truck through that hole. It needs to be unequivocal.”

Clark would much prefer it if the church put its energy into ending abortions. “They’re roaring proactive to prevent executions,” he says. “But they’re not proactive in preventing abortions. This is my upset-ment with it.”

Such dissension notwithstanding, the death-penalty issue could prove a critical unifying force for the Catholic Church. This is especially true in new communities like St. Francis, where Catholics from a range of traditions are attempting to create a new and cohesive approach. Around the time of the second Meyer trial, St. Francis welcomed a new parishioner named Walter Winiewicz, an IBM employee who had moved to Raleigh. Winiewicz was a lifelong death-penalty supporter. “The first time I came to church here, we prayed to end the death penalty,” Winiewicz says. “I said, ‘I can’t say that,’ so I stopped repeating the words.” Then Winiewicz’s wife, who joined the church choir, discovered that Meyer’s mother was a choir member too. “That started it,” he says. “Talking to my wife, I think it helped both of us strengthen our decision to change.”

Winiewicz had lived in Texas during the governorship of George Bush and supported him when he ignored pleas for clemency from the pope and other religious leaders. (Bush presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in modern U.S. history.) By 1999, when the governor of Missouri granted the pope’s request for clemency just before an execution, Winiewicz was starting to come around. “I wasn’t there yet, but it was beginning to sink in,” he says. “Today I can tell you that I’m not so sure it deters crime, and I’m becoming more concerned about human life.”

The same year, another St. Francis parishioner, Mary Pollard, went to hear a talk by Sister Helen Prejean. Pollard was what she calls “passively opposed” to the death penalty. She had seen the Academy Award-winning film based on Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking and was curious to see what the nun was like in real life. “She just blew me away,” Pollard says. “She talked about the unfairness of the system, that it was a punishment for poor people and for black people. I left that day, and I thought, this is definitely a problem in North Carolina, and what can we do about it?”

She soon got her chance. Pollard was working as a product liability lawyer, and her firm was tapped to assist on a capital appeal (it’s common practice in communities that are short on death-penalty defense lawyers to seek out deep-pocketed corporate firms for help). Pollard persuaded the partners to accept the case, which she took on as her own. Her client, Alan Gell, had been sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of a retired truck driver. Pollard soon discovered that he had either been out of the state or in jail at the time of the killing, and found a taped statement from one of the witnesses confessing that she had made up her story. Four years later, Gell was a free man.

The case so convinced Pollard of the immorality of the death penalty that she quit her job and went to work for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. “The part of Catholicism that I embrace is the appeal for justice, the responsibility to the least of us, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek,” Pollard says. “The church should play a role in remedying these things in society, waking people up to the injustices, to the things we can fix.”

In the nearly four years since Pollard turned to death-penalty work full-time, North Carolina has executed 15 men. This fall three more of the condemned who have exhausted their appeals face execution. Their only chance for reprieve is clemency from the governor, Mike Easley, a former district attorney and a Catholic who, since becoming governor, has signed off on 21 executions and granted clemency twice. One of this fall’s cases, that of Elias Syriani, particularly troubles Pollard. In this instance, she says, it’s clear that the only justification for the punishment is state-inflicted revenge.

On a warm September morning, Syriani, clad in a red prison-issue jumpsuit, his hands cuffed in front of him, sat behind thick iron bars and bullet-proof glass and reflected on his dimming prospects for survival. An Assyrian from Jordan who worked as a tool-and-die machine operator in Charlotte, he was sentenced for stabbing his wife to death with a screwdriver in front of two of their four young children. That was almost 15 years ago. Syriani is now 67, the third-oldest person on North Carolina’s death row. He apologized for the sweat he continually mopped from his forehead, explaining that it is a symptom of his diabetes. He referred to his crime as “my situation” and talked about his love for his wife, and for his children, who are now grown. Until last year, only one of them had contacted him. Last summer, all four came to see him, intending to confront him. They wound up forgiving him and now want the state to spare his life. “I learned to live with not having a mother,” says Janet Syriani, the youngest of the four children, who was eight when her mother was stabbed. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to handle having another parent murdered. Enough is enough.”

In a mournful, Middle Eastern waver, Syriani sang a song that he wrote for them in Arabic, one verse of praise for each child. He shared photos they sent, including one of his older daughter, who is due with his first grandchild in the spring, a child Syriani is not likely to see if his execution is carried out as planned. “I leave everything to God,” Syriani said. “Maybe he has a miracle. I leave everything in his hands.”

Cases like Syriani’s lay bare the cruelty of execution, Pollard says. “You can’t say you’re doing it for the victims, because they have forgiven him,” she says. “You can’t say you’re doing it to protect society, or even the other inmates,” because Syriani is old and unwell. “What you’re left with is vengeance.”


THE CONVERSION OF ST. FRANCIS CHURCH has progressed beyond the sanctuary and the prison cell to the halls of political power. Mary Pollard, while she was litigating to free Alan Gell from death row, joined a group of St. Francis parishioners lobbying state legislators to curtail capital punishment. Their efforts are loosely coordinated by Paul Amrhein, director of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Ministries. (His title used to be director of Social Concerns, until he got one too many calls seeking help with wedding plans.) It is his job to employ an education-driven approach to changing minds, both within the parish and within the legislature. On execution nights, he joins the protest vigils outside the prison gates. “From a spiritual perspective, inability to forgive is the major impediment to people’s conversion on this issue,” Amrhein says. “We try to work on ways to get that sense of forgiveness.”

From time to time, he organizes Sunday-morning signing stations around the St. Francis campus, with postcards and colorful helium-filled balloons and volunteers standing at the ready to answer questions and urge support. After one particularly successful campaign, an effort in 2001 to ban execution of the mentally retarded, Amrhein, Pollard, and several other parishioners showed up with a stack of 600 postcards at the office of North Carolina senate speaker Marc Basnight, often called the most powerful person in North Carolina politics. “He was very pro-death-penalty,” says Amrhein. “We were very calm, collected, and prayerful.”

Basnight seemed unmoved. After a short while, he got up to go, leaving the supplicants with one of his aides. The aide pulled them into a side office, Pollard remembers, grasped their hands, and asked them to pray that the senator would change his mind. “It really seemed genuine,” Pollard says. “We took it as a good sign.” In the spring of that year, the North Carolina legislature voted to end execution of the mentally retarded. Basnight voted in favor of the measure. A year later the U.S. Supreme Court (over the objections of Antonin Scalia, a Catholic and an outspoken death-penalty supporter) found such executions “cruel and unusual.” The Court cited an amicus brief written by the bishops’ conference as evidence of “evolving standards of decency” when it banned the practice. In 2005, the Court followed a similar line of reasoning when it ended execution of juveniles.

In recent years, grassroots efforts such as those at St. Francis have been key in the Catholic Church’s attempts to soften the hardline pro-death-penalty stance that dominated the U.S. political arena for nearly a quarter century. When Governor George Ryan of Illinois in 2003 famously removed all 167 inmates from that state’s death row, after declaring a moratorium on further capital sentences, he was hailed nationally but excoriated by many of his constituents. Church leaders stood by him, providing constant public affirmation of his action. Local Catholic activists, including Amrhein and others at St. Francis, organized letter-writing campaigns and protests in support of many of the 121 condemned inmates who have subsequently been exonerated nationwide. In 2004, the bishops’ conference played a key role in getting Congress to pass the Innocence Protection Act, which provides convicted offenders greater access to DNA testing and helps states improve the quality of legal representation in capital cases by establishing national standards.

Although President Bush remains a death-penalty supporter, he spoke in his State of the Union address in January of the need for “dramatically expanding” DNA testing for capital defendants. In April, when John Paul II died, Bush became the first president in history to attend a pope’s funeral. In Florida, his brother Jeb, who converted to Catholicism before becoming governor and has repeatedly called the signing of death warrants the hardest part of his job, publicly fretted over whether to delay an execution in honor of the pope—before going ahead with it.

Of the 38 states that currently permit the death penalty, bishops have identified a handful as likely candidates for abolition. This summer state church leaders successfully testified against a bill to reenact New York’s death penalty. Similar efforts came close to succeeding in Connecticut and New Mexico and have also targeted Kansas and New Jersey. In North Carolina, the goal is less sweeping: a pause to study the issue. In 2003, the North Carolina Senate passed a moratorium measure after Basnight experienced a dramatic change of heart during a debate on the issue on the Senate floor. Amrhein believes the visit from the parishioners helped tip the scales. Their efforts were not as successful in the House, where the measure failed to come to a vote, but Amrhein says it is just a matter of time and patience before they bring enough legislators around to pass a moratorium. “You can’t force a person’s conversion,” he says. “It has to be a heartfelt, deep-gut thing.”

Death by increments is the way that the death penalty is most likely to meet its demise, says the Pew Forum’s Green. “It would be very difficult to abolish the death penalty in one fell swoop,” he says. “Public opinion isn’t there. I do think that the emphasis the Catholic hierarchy has placed on this issue is likely to inspire a lot more activism, which presents real opportunities for change.” Richard Dieter concurs: “The death penalty is not going to end because of a moral revolution,” he says. “People aren’t going to swing over to the Catholic side. Most Americans don’t think that way. But there’s an openness to consider it now, which the Catholic Church has made possible. I’m not morally weak for opposing the death penalty. I’m morally strong. That is a big change.”


INSPIRED BY THEIR CHURCH’S TEACHING on the death penalty, a group of St. Francis parishioners decided in the spring of 2004 to perform an adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Their ambition for the project was modest: one free performance, in the church’s sanctuary. To everyone’s surprise, 700 people showed up, and the play seemed to strike a deep chord. “We kept getting calls from all these people saying, ‘When can you perform it at our church?’ ” says Megan Loughlin Nerz, executive director of the project. “ ‘When can you perform it at our school?’ ”

The performers obliged and, with Pollard’s help, were able to persuade exonerated death row inmate Alan Gell to speak after one show about his ordeal. St. Francis parishioner Tim Throndson, a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, attended that performance and was deeply moved. “It was incredible to see Alan standing there in front of you,” Throndson says. “Here was a man who was near execution. It was extremely powerful.” Seeing Gell, he says, solidified his opposition to the death penalty. Throndson describes himself as a “compassionate conservative.” He opposes abortion and euthanasia and is a supporter of President Bush. He had no background in theater, but he decided to get involved. He joined the board of what had become known as the Justice Theater Project, an arts advocacy group.

He was dissatisfied when, after the Gaines play, the theater project moved in other directions, putting on one play about the working poor and preparing for a production of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. One morning last spring over coffee, he and another board member suggested they chuck that plan and return to the death penalty. “It was a painful decision, because we had to give up what we’d been working on,” Throndson says. “But we did some serious evaluation, and we said, let’s go back to what matters most. It’s a critical issue, one where we think we can make a difference, probably more than ever.”

The project’s creative leaders agree. “I was talking to one of my neighbors, and she said, ‘Anybody that kills anybody, just fry ’em,’” says the project’s artistic director, Deb Royals-Mizerk, who often sings alongside Jeff Meyer’s mother in the church choir. “It slammed me right in the face. I started thinking of Judy Meyer. My response to her was, ‘If we in the state of North Carolina were going to kill your son, would you feel the same way?’”

Now the theater project is deep into an 18-month original production based on interviews with people who have been directly involved with death row and with executions. The goal, says Nerz, is to bring the debate back to what the Catholic Church believes is the core issue: not innocence, frailty, incompetence, or poverty, but mercy and forgiveness. “If we talk about the death penalty in the terms of the exonerated and the poor and minorities, are we saying that if we could right those things it would be okay to kill?” she says. “We hope to take the debate to a different level.”

The theater project participants, and many others at St. Francis, are exactly the kind of Catholics that the U.S. bishops’ conference is hoping to inspire: those who are willing to move beyond receiving wisdom to creating it. “I have a lot of Catholic friends, as well as non-Catholic friends, I have talked to and debated about this,” Throndson says. “And every time we talk about it, I say, ‘If you really believe this person is guilty, would you be the person to push the plunger and watch that person die? How would you feel about that?’ And that’s when it starts to shift.”


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