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Monday, February 17, 2020

Reflections on the Ohio Journey By Kathy Harris

I announced that I was going to take a two-week vacation to travel through Ohio with the Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, and was greeted with stares that confirmed I had lost my mind.  I wasn’t sure how to explain myself. This would be my fifth Journey and I was looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time.

I was looking forward to seeing friends I met on previous Journeys, and to meeting new friends.  Traveling together on a Journey is so intense and so emotional that strong bonds are quickly formed among the participants.  At the same time I am dreading the early mornings, late nights, and long, emotionally draining days that are part of the Journey.

Being on a Journey means lots of togetherness, little privacy, less sleep, and taking a gamble on housing. Our first home base was the Moye Center, a beautiful old convent south of Cincinnati and the Ohio River in Melbourne, Kentucky.  John Moye was a French priest who founded the Sisters of Divine Providence.  The grounds boasted an elegant tree-lined drive and expansive lawn. We each had a private room. The group had access to a large kitchen for breakfasts and snacks, and a meeting area where we gathered each evening. After five days we moved to Camp Cheerful, outside of Cleveland, It was a children’s camp in need of paint and a good cleaning, which was scheduled for just after our departure.  We occupied three cabins with bunk beds.  One cabin for the men, one for the ladies, and a co-ed cabin for those who like variety. The bathhouse was in a separate building, which meant venturing out in the weather, including a dusting of snow one morning, to use the facilities. The Great Hall with kitchen and meeting facilities were a short walk across the camp. The last five days were spent at St. Peter and Paul’s retreat center, 25 miles outside of Columbus, high on a hill overlooking rolling hills and farmland.  We were all in one building, with two large open rooms for sleeping, men downstairs, and women upstairs.

Over the past two years I had witnessed Bill Pelke’s frustration as two publishers reneged on their agreements to publish his memoirs about the genesis of the Journey.  He so wanted to have a book in time for the Ohio Journey he decided to self-publish “Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing”.  The first box of books arrived in Ohio just ahead of him; Abe Bonowitz presented it to him at the opening press conference.  At the benefit featuring Sr. Helen Prejean, Bill presented her with a copy of his book, thanking her for writing the foreword and recalling that ten years ago she had first seen her completed book “Dead Man Walking” at his home in Portage, Indiana at the start of the very first Journey.  That book, and the subsequent movie, was so successful that her schedule would only allow her to devote one day to this Journey.

Throughout the Journey, we were blessed with the gift of music from Charlie King and Karen Brandow. Karen also took on the role of camp counselor; her calm presence helped keep the organizers sane, as she quietly and competently solved problems and soothed frazzled nerves.  We asked them to sing at every meeting and rally; they always obliged us.  At the opening vigil outside the death house in Lucasville, they sang a rain song, about how the rain falls on all, rich and poor, alike.  By the end of the song, the rain had almost stopped; by the end of the vigil, the sun was shining. They closed the final rally at the statehouse in Columbus with a rousing rendition of the old civil rights standard “Hold On”.

Our chief organizer, Jana, handled the inevitable confusion caused by schedule changes and late arrivals like a pro.  She took to heart the Journey beatitude “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”  She was one of the most well organized people I have ever met, with all of the information about the journey literally at her fingertips, on her Braille computer. She had some dedicated assistants and drivers in Pete Ryder, Marty May and Mary Jo Pfander. They did untold amounts of work before the Journey even got started.  Pete stayed with us the whole time, driving folks wherever they needed to go.

The Journey was a chance to re-connect with friends like SueZann Bosler over a game of cards, and tease her about her wardrobe. SueZann is from Florida, and I don’t think she warmed up enough to take off her long black coat for her first three days at Camp Cheerful. It was also a chance to provide support when SueZann cried as she told a high-school class her heart-wrenching story of the pain she suffered as she struggled to recover from her physical and emotional injuries, inflicted in an attack by James Bernard Campbell, the man who killed her father and left her for dead in a home invasion.

Felicia Draughon, who was on the Texas and Tennessee Journeys, joined the card games. She has an impish smile and slender figure that belies her age and the tragedy in her life; her brother Martin is on death row in Texas.

Carol Byars from Houston, Texas, was another card player, with her no-nonsense attitude and deep-throated laugh. She lost her husband to murder, and claims he saved her life by giving her permission to forgive his killer, by forgiving him first.

The first few days everyone asks, “When is George getting here?”  George White, with his smooth, southern style and incredible storytelling ability has been on every Journey. He and Bill have traveled together so much they refer to each other as “Bro”. He is a long-haul trucker who calls the road his home. He barely made it to Ohio in time for his speaking engagements on Sunday.

Mike Kennedy of Dallas, Texas has been on every Journey.  He suffers from a progressive nerve disorder that makes speaking, walking and maintaining his balance difficult. But in spite of the difficulties, he took the bus from Dallas to Ohio, with his walking cane and camera bag, to participate in the entire Journey.  He is the Journey’s beloved mascot, cheerfully going wherever the group is going, taking pictures and helping however he can. He is an inspiration to me; if he can put up with the hardships of the trip without complaint, surely I can too. Everyone looks out for Mike, especially George. Mike adores George, even when he teases him, making him laugh and lose his balance.

Marches and rallies are particularly hard for Mike, especially when trying to keep up with a group.  Andi Fasimpaur, “the bead lady” from Ohio, solved the problem by finding a wheelchair for him to use for marches.

Mike arrived with one temple missing from his glasses, making them perpetually lopsided on his face.  When George arrived, his glasses had been lost. Neither of them could afford to replace their glasses.  With the proceeds raised by an email appeal sent out by Abe Bonowitz, they left the Journey with new glasses, both seeing and looking much better.

Naturally, Abe Bonowitz was in charge of the t-shirts. He is one of the hardest working and most dedicated abolitionists in the country, and the best source of anti-death penalty t-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons. Abe is originally from Ohio and has been on many Journeys. When he learned the Journey was coming to his former home state, he offered to help any way he could. He came from Florida a few days early to spend some time with his family and to help with advance media work.

Sam Sheppard was one of the first ones to commit to participating in the Ohio Journey.  Everyone in Ohio remembers the Sheppard case, so his name was a big draw. Sam was concerned it would be too big of a draw, distracting the media from the work of the Journey.  He was pleased when one journalist only asked him about the Journey and avoided any questions related to his father’s case. When we arrived at Camp Cheerful, Sam announced that we were now in the county where his mother was murdered.  He wrestled with whether he would speak at the rally in downtown Cleveland, but in the end he stepped up to the microphone and made a brief but powerful speech.

I went with Sam and Donna Larsen when they spoke at Grace Lutheran Church in Wadsworth. During the question and answer period a man stood up and told Sam that he had lived in the same neighborhood as Sam when his mother was killed.  He had seen someone walking on the bridge in the middle of that night and had told the police about it.  He was certain he had seen Sam’s mother’s killer and had gone to the trial hoping to testify, but was never called.  No one would listen to him, and he had carried this knowledge around for all these years, finally seeking Sam out to tell him he knew there was someone else there that terrible night. He and Sam talked at length after the meeting.

I met several women on this trip whom I can look to as role models, women on the high side of sixty, and still actively working for a cause they believe in, including Eve Malo, Arletta Hartmann and Aba Gayle.  Eve lives in Montana, Arletta in Arizona and Aba Gayle recently moved to Oregon from California.  These strong-spirited, good-humored, independent and opinionated women from the west are the kind of woman I want to grow up to be.  Arletta came from Arizona to bring her sister-in-law, Carol Parcell, to the Journey.

Arletta’s nephew and Carol’s son, Brett, is on death row in Ohio.  Carol never would have joined the Journey on her own. She was like a puppy that had been kicked so many times any movement frightened her. The years of distrust and betrayal and skepticism showed on Carol’s face the first night at Camp Cheerful when she introduced herself to the group. A week later, when she re-joined us for a rally in front of Mansfield – where her son sits on Death Row – the change in her face as she greeted us was remarkable.  It was as if a parched flower had finally been watered, she looked ten years younger.

At Camp Cheerful Carol met two other women who had sons on Death Row, Teri Steinberg from Virginia and Donna Nelson from California. These three women formed an instant support group among themselves and were so grateful for the compassionate acceptance they received from the rest of the group, especially the murder victim family members.  In many cases their friends had abandoned them; Terri talked of not knowing how to explain to her six year old why her friends wouldn’t talk to her any more; Donna told of being unable to convince a pastor within her own denomination to visit her son on Death Row.

Shirley Dicks, whose son died of medical neglect on Tennessee’s death row, joined the Journey for a few days.  In addition to these Death Row mothers, Hannah Floyd, whose husband is on Death Row in Florida, joined the Journey for the first time. Hannah is originally from Denmark and shared the European puzzlement over the continued use of the death penalty in the world’s greatest democracy.

David Kaczynski drove from New York to share his story of the terrible dilemma he faced when he suspected his brother was the Unibomber, but knew that sharing his suspicions with the authorities could lead to his brother’s death. He now serves as Executive Director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty.

I spent a memorable day in Sandusky with David and Kristi Smith of Kansas. I got to know Kristi, with her gorgeous cheekbones, trusty iron, heavy camera bag, and the infinite patience of a woman raising four daughters, on the North Carolina journey. I was delighted to see her again.  Kristi lost her father to murder, forgave, and then befriended his killer.

Juan Melendez, the 99th and Ray Krone, the 100th man exonerated from Death Row came to Ohio to talk about how such miscarriages of justice occur. Juan starts by speaking a few sentences in Spanish and then asking how many people understood what he said. Most people do not raise their hands.  When Juan was arrested he understood maybe five words in English, and three of those were cuss words.  He was picked up by the FBI while working as an itinerant fruit picker in Pennsylvania and accused of capital murder in Florida. He agreed to be extradited to Florida, he knew he was innocent, and he thought as soon as they got a good look at him, they’d realize they had the wrong man. He was assigned an attorney, who spoke no Spanish, but kept patting him on the back and telling him everything would be okay. He was not provided with a translator.  Instead, after two days of jury selection and a three-day trial, he was sent to Death Row.  It took almost eighteen years for the evidence to clear him to surface; evidence the prosecutor had in his possession before the trial, a taped confession by the real killer.

Ray Krone was a middle class white guy from Pennsylvania, working for the Post Office in Arizona, when he was arrested and charged with the murder of a waitress working in a bar he frequented.  It took almost ten years for the DNA evidence that cleared him to be admitted in court.

Too often, the men who are eventually exonerated find themselves in a world with no support network, no ability to get a job, strained or non-existent family relations, faced with the temptations of drugs and alcohol. Many of them find themselves without the skills to survive on the outside, and get into trouble again. Both Juan and Ray credit their faith and families with helping them to survive on the outside.

Additional murder victim family members who joined the Journey read like a Who’s Who list of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation:  Renny Cushing, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Bill Jenkins, Maria Hines, Bud Welch, Sally Peck, Ron Callen, Ben Griffith,  and Eloise Williams. I’m sure I missed a few. Some could only come for a day or two, but each made the effort to come and take part in working to move Ohio toward abolition of the death penalty.

As the miles of gentle Ohio hills roll past on our way to another event, I find myself thinking of the words to a favorite Jackson Browne song called “The Load Out”. The song describes the hardship and boredom of living on the road. “Time to think of the ones we love while the miles roll away” and “…these towns all look the same.  We pass the time in hotel rooms and wander round backstage, till the lights come up and we hear that crowd and we remember why we came…”

And I think of Ben Griffith talking to a spellbound audience in a Brethren Church, all of us crying together, even Ben, as he shares the pain and anger of losing his brother to a random and senseless act of violence, and how that loss challenged his lifelong Quaker beliefs, how he slowly worked through his desire for revenge.  We are hearing a powerful and emotional truth about how the death penalty contributes nothing toward the healing process; instead it increases the suffering and pain of all the families involved. I think this is why we are here in Ohio, to share this truth.

And I remember why I came on this exhilarating and exhausting Journey, to be with these people who shine with the strength and beauty of the human spirit, whose courage and compassion restores my faith in humanity, increases my faith in God, and makes my spirit soar.