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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Texas Journey teaches forgiveness

by Kathy Harris

When my plane arrived in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, I was one of the last people to disembark, and I immediately spotted the Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing representative holding a sign that said, "Execution is NOT the Solution". While waiting for me, my contact had been approached by a big burly Texan in a cowboy hat who growled "Yeah it is." The man’s wife punched him in the arm.
"Shaddup Bubba," she said. "It’s probably a joke."
Welcome to Texas, I thought - where openly opposing the death penalty seems so crazy it must be a joke.
I understood her comment. Having spent most of my adult life in Texas, I know how deeply support of the death penalty is ingrained in the Texan psyche. Like many Texans, I supported the death penalty. I had never given it much thought or heard of any reason not to support it. But in 1986 I joined Amnesty International, and began attending local group meetings. Amnesty International had taken a stand against the death penalty and was teaching its members about the issue. I listened to the sometimes heated discussions and started reading and learning all I could. Over time, my opinion changed so strongly that I became an active abolitionist, working with Amnesty International and Texans Against State Killing, and ultimately becoming a pen pal with a man on Death Row.
When I moved to Alaska in 1992, I was to delighted to learn it had no death penalty. But efforts to reinstate it drew me back into the abolition movement in 1993. An accountant by profession, I have been treasurer of Alaskans Against the Death Penalty since it was founded that year. My trip back to Texas this summer to join a group of murder victims’ families and activists opposed to the death penalty on a speaking tour called "Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing" was, for me, a way of coming full circle.
In Dallas, I joined my fellow travelers at a shabby old hotel. My roommates were Sally Peck from Michigan, whose mother was raped, beaten, strangled and stabbed to death in her Detroit home; Helen Pajama from Maine, whose elderly cousin was murdered when she was a little girl; and Joan Betz, a nurse from Virginia. After putting away my luggage, I joined the group in the cement courtyard outside.
After I introduced myself, a tall man in dark sunglasses and baseball cap asked with a grin, "You’re not by any chance related to David Harris?" The mention of the name David Harris gave him away.
"You’re Randall Dale Adams from the Thin Blue Line," I said. He seemed pleased I recognized him. David Harris was the teenager who had helped send Randall to Texas’ Death Row in 1977 for allegedly murdering a police officer. Many years later, David Harris confessed on camera that he had lied about Randall’s participation in the murder and Randall was released after 12 years under the sentence of death. I would later learn that this Journey was Randall’s first trip back to Texas since his release and that he’d come against his mother’s wishes. Although he came to Texas to promote forgiveness and reconciliation, Randall admits that he is still working hard to forgive the people who put him on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit.
On Sunday, I attended a Methodist church, where Randall was scheduled to speak with SueZann Bosler, a murder victims’ family member. SueZann was wearing a black tank top when she first climbed into the van that morning, and I noticed a scar on her right shoulder blade. At the church, I would learn that she was stabbed six times during a robbery at her home in Florida. Her father, Rev. Billy Bosler, was stabbed twenty times and did not survive the attack. SueZann explained that her father did not believe in the death penalty and that if he had been the one to live through the ordeal he would be doing the same thing she is; speaking out against it. SueZann forgave the man who killed her father and tried to kill her. She worked to get him off death row, and in 1997 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
"Sharing my experience with others is part of my healing process." SueZann says.
Although not scheduled to speak at the church, Sunny Jacobs was allowed to share her story. She and her common law husband, Jesse Tofero, were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two police officers in Florida in 1976. Her conviction was overturned and she was released in 1992 after a childhood friend helped raise serious doubts about her case. Jesse’s guilt was equally brought into question, but he had been executed on May 4, 1990.
Sunny has more reason than most to be bitter and angry, but she is cheerful as a bird, with a laugh as light and bright as her name. "Each time you kill someone, you kill a little part of everyone who is involved with that person, including the executioner;" she explains. "With the death penalty, we are creating a whole other set of victims. In our disposable society, when something breaks, we throw it away. We are doing the same thing with people. They break and we get rid of them. Children picking up guns and killing to solve their problems is a result of the example we’ve set with the death penalty."
The man who organized the first Journey, Bill Pelke, also spoke at the church. His 78-year-old grandmother was stabbed 33 times by a gang of teenage girls in 1985. The ringleader, Paula Cooper, was fifteen years old at the time of the crime. At sixteen, she became the youngest person on death row in the U.S. Pelke originally celebrated the death sentence. But in a moment of reflection and prayer in 1986, he realized his grandmother, a devout Christian, would have wanted him to forgive Paula. He wrote a letter to Paula and began to work to commute her sentence. With the help of the international human rights movement, Bill was successful, and Paula is now serving a 60-year sentence.
Later that night we were sitting in the hotel courtyard trading stories. Steve Earle, a singer/songwriter whose song about a guard on Death Row in Texas, "Ellis Unit One", was featured in the soundtrack to the movie Dead Man Walking, picked up his guitar and began to play. After a few songs, Randall Dale Adams asked him to play "Ellis Unit One". Over the next week, I would come to know Steve as one of the funniest and most generous people I’ve met. He became the "Chief Roady" and spent his days driving the vans and joking that trying to get the group together was "like herding cats." But my strongest memory of him was fixed that night as he sang his bittersweet ballad about Death Row for an innocent man who had spent twelve years there.
In San Antonio, Marietta Jaeger and Sister Helen Prejean joined the Journey. Marietta’s seven-year-old daughter, Susie was kidnapped during a camping trip to Montana in 1973. For the next year she did not know what had happened to Susie. While she waited, she prayed for compassion and the capacity to forgive. As the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping approached, she told the Montana newspapers that she
desperately wanted to talk to the kidnapper. Exactly one year after the abduction, the kidnapper called her Michigan home to taunt her. Her first reaction was to ask him how he was doing. Touched by her caring attitude, he stayed on the phone for nearly an hour. FBI agents used clues from the taped conversation to catch the killer. He was offered a life sentence in exchange for his confession, but committed suicide in jail.
"Anyone who thinks forgiveness is for wimps hasn’t tried it." Marietta says. "It is hard, gut-wrenching work. But we cannot honor our loved ones by becoming that which we deplore. The death penalty does not heal families, in fact it exacerbates the pain."
Sister Helen Prejean is the author of Dead Man Walking, the best-selling book and Oscar winning movie about her experiences as a spiritual advisor to Death Row inmates in Louisiana. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for her abolitionist work. In San Antonio she addressed a group of about 300 people at a luncheon, and that evening led a procession from the Alamo to the historic San Fernando Cathedral. The priest who introduced her told a story of a hanging tree that one hundred years ago stood in the square across from the Cathedral.
"Criminals were regularly hung from the tree and their lifeless bodies left on display, much to the disgust of the local priest. One day he decided he’d seen enough and he picked up his ax, walked across the street and cut down the hanging tree. That is what Sister Helen and the Journey are trying to do…cut down the hanging tree in Texas."
In Austin, I was assigned to room with Franscoise Diercyk, a fellow Amnesty International member from Belgium. Franscoise, like other Europeans on the Journey, found it amazing that a western democracy so culturally similar to their own still engages in the barbaric practice of killing it’s own citizens. All European countries have abolished the death penalty. Countries wishing to join the Council of Europe must remove the death penalty from their laws. The U.S. and Texas, in particular, seem to have no idea how out of step they are with the rest of the civilized world.
After seventeen days of talking to people where ever they would listen - in churches, campuses, YWCAs and luncheon groups; at City Hall, vigils and prayer meetings; on radio and TV; and in movie theaters and pubs, the "Journey of Hope... From Violence to Healing" culminated with a march and rally at the Texas Capitol building in Austin. The 200-plus participants included representatives from Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, Amnesty International, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Italian abolitionist group, Hands off Cain. Speakers read resolutions from the European Parliament and the UN Commission on Human Rights calling for a moratorium on executions. A green and yellow ribbon, sent by a church in Germany, inscribed with the names of all 452 persons on Texas’ Death Row, was used to encircle the speakers’ podium. The unrelenting heat radiating off the limestone steps of the Capitol did not diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd as stories, songs, smiles, tears, and hugs were shared. A Canadian songwriter named Stephanie Coward sang a song she had written for the Journey that summed up what everyone was seeking... "A better way, a way of light within such darkness, a way of peace to still the anger, a way that teaches to forgive..."
The Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing didn’t abolish the death penalty in Texas. That may be a long time coming. But we were able to chip away at the wall of support and to change a few hearts and minds. Like ripples in a pond, those people will touch other people, who will in turn change their minds.
The resilient and resplendent women and men I came to know on this Journey have managed to transcend the horror in their own lives by sharing their experiences, their compassion, and their faith. It was an uplifting lesson in the healing power of forgiveness.