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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Aba Gayle’s Journey

Washington Post
October 12, 1996
Coleman McCarthy

    Nearly every Friday morning, Aba Gayle travels 40 miles from her home north of San Francisco to San Quentin state prison.  There, the 63-year-old woman, a part-time worker in the office of her daughter, who is a physician in family practice, moves through security.  Guards take her to the visitor’s room near death row, where more than 440 men are awaiting execution.
    From about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Aba Gayle visits with a condemned prisoner – one of seven she has befriended, a different one each week.  They talk about prison life, religion, crime, punishment, their backgrounds and their different routes to this caged world behind walls.
    Aba Gayle’s involvement in the lives of San Quentin’s death row inmates began in the spring of 1992 when she wrote a letter to one of them – the man who murdered her daughter.  In 300 words marked with candor, emotion and mercy, Blount expressed forgiveness to the convicted killer of 19-year-old Catherine Blount.  She had recently graduated from Bella Vista High School near Sacramento and was living on a ranch in Northern California tending animals, including milk goats and an Arabian mare.
    On Sept. 30, 1980, she was stabbed more than 10 times by an attacker.  When caught months later, he was convicted and sentenced to death.  He has been in San Quentin since 1982.
    In the late 1980s, Aba Gayle, after living much of the decade locked in grief and rage, experienced a conversion of the heart.  In time, it led her to a decision that put her in stark contrast with the unyielding harshness by which much of society scorns the 3,100 people now on America’s 38 death rows.  As one human being to another, Aba Gayle reached out to the killer of her daughter.
    In 1992, she began her letter to him: “Twelve years ago I had a beautiful daughter named Catherine.  She was a young woman of unusual talents and intelligence… She radiated with love and joy… The violent way she left this earth was impossible for me to understand.  I was saddened beyond belief.”
    Blount explained that through readings in spirituality and being guided by religious teachers, she was able to move beyond feelings of hatred and vengeance to ones of forgiveness:  “This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened.  What I learned is this: You are a divine child of God.  You carry the Christ-consciousness within you.  You are surrounded by God’s love even as you sit in your cell.  The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you.”
    Before ending the letter, Aba Gayle offered advice and encouragement: “Do not look to me to be a political or social advocate in your behalf.  The law of the land will determine your fate … I am willing to write to you or visit if you wish.”
    The prisoner wrote back, in words of profuse gratitude for Blount’s transcendent kindness.  He expressed total remorse and sorrow for his crime, stating also that he understood fully how empty such words might sound.
    Since this initial exchange, Aba Gayle has written once a month to the prisoner.  She visits him four times a year.  On Oct. 4, the California woman came to Washington with some 100 other death penalty abolitionists to protest capital punishment in front of the Supreme Court.  The group belongs to Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, a national organization with several hundred members that is based in Atlantic, VA.  It sponsors an annual Journey of Hope in which citizens such as Aba Gayle who have lost family members to homicide spent two weeks traveling through one state speaking on the death penalty at schools, media outlets, churches and other assemblies willing to listen.
    This year’s state was Virginia, the national record holder for executions: more than 1,200 people, 1,000 of them black.  Of all the voices heard in the often clamorous debate on capital punishment, Aba Gayle’s deserves as much, and possibly more, consideration than the incessant calls from politicians and prosecutors for more death: “My experience,” says Blount, “has shown me that it is not necessary to kill another human being for me to have the completion of my anger and grief.  I do not want my grandchildren to be taught that we deal with violence with more violence.  I do not want my daughter’s beautiful spirit tarnished by a premeditated murder.  I am ashamed to be a citizen of a state that kills its citizens in cold blood.”
    From San Quentin to the Supreme Court – coast-to-coast allies in upholding the death penalty – Aba Gayle is a credible witness for both justice and forgiveness.