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Saturday, November 16, 2019

10-19 South Texas Catholic Newspaper

Group brings message of healing, works to abolish death penalty
By Liz Riggle

Two women were once strangers to each other, living a thousand miles apart. Separated by age, background and culture, they had nothing in common, except for the fact that both their lives had been shredded by the senseless violence of murder.
Carol Byars and Celia McWee are victims whose lives were changed forever when a family member was killed.
Speaking to a small but attentive crowd at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi on Oct. 19, Byars and McWee each gave a first-person testimonial of the hurt, anger, bewilderment and hatred that follows the murder of a loved one.
But instead of seeking vengeance, these two women became part of the Journey of Hope.
Journey of Hope is a non-profit organization led by murder victims' family members and family members of inmates on death row, which conducts public education speaking tours and addresses alternatives to the death penalty.
In 1977, Carol Byars was 21-years-old, married, a mother of one daughter, pregnant with a second daughter and living in Houston. Her husband, James Hapney, became involved in a minor fight and was shot by his mother's neighbor. Hapney died of his wounds eight months later.
Byars told the crowd, Jimmy forgave the man who shot him. According to his faith, it was the right thing to do. I was mad and I was hurt.
James Hapney's murderer was caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison where he has since died.
Byars went on to describe the trial and her journey towards forgiveness of her husband's killer.
Sitting in the courtroom was a surreal event. I looked over, and the murderer had a baby face. His wife wore the same expression that I had. We were two sides of the same coin.
The pain and anger were too much. Pain is a shroud you wear, she continued.
As the years passed, Byars became hooked on pills and alcohol.
I knew that if I did not deal with (the pain) that I was going to die. The last thing that Jimmy would have wanted was for me to pass down the legacy of hate and anger to his children.
Byars discussed how God eventually pushed her toward prison ministry.
I went to Texas death row. There was a plan for me, and there was work to be done. I never witnessed an execution. I worked on death row for seven years. This work helps me to heal. I am now working for abolition of the death penalty. The death penalty is all about politics and money.
Byars concluded her emotional talk by reminding the crowd, We are not designed to carry that much pain and anger. It is too much.
At 81 years of age, Celia McWee looks like a kindly grandmother who would always have a plate of cookies waiting for her grandchildren.
But her life has been scarred by murder on two separate occasions.
Living in Georgia, McWee and her husband received a phone call that their daughter had been strangled to death by her husband. It was New Year's Day, 1980.
McWee's son-in-law was in a Florida jail, and her young granddaughters were in foster care.
Because the son-in-law's family had money, he was able to plead no contest and received six months probation for his crime and retained custody of the children.
McWee did not have contact with her granddaughters for the next 17 years.
In 1994, McWee suffered another tragedy when her youngest son was sentenced to death in South Carolina for shooting a man.
You can not imagine seeing your child being brought in with those horrible chains. I knew that I must give him support. For 10 years every Sunday, I drove three hours each way to visit my son in prison. My son accepted his sentence. He knew he had broken one of God's commandments. I am not saying that he should not be punished.
On April 16, 2004, McWee witnessed her son's execution.
I had given birth to him; I could not let him die alone. I did not see a gurney. I saw a cross.
McWee had a special message for young people.
Whatever you do before you get together with the wrong group, think about what this is going to do to your family. This spur of the moment actionwhat will it do for the rest of your life?
McWee said the best therapy for her is being part of the Journey of Hope mission.
Colin Sykes, a member of the Unitarian Church, discussed his reasons for working to abolish the death penalty.
We are the only industrial country in the western world still murdering its citizens. It does not work. The death penalty is applied disproportionately to minorities, poor, the mentally ill and the young. The death penalty does not work. I became more aware of the death penalty when I discovered that people were being executed who were not guilty. So many people have been found innocent while living on death row. It is more expensive to house a person on death row than keeping him in prison for life. I am not for opening the prison doors. I just want to find a better way.
The Journey of Hope group spoke earlier in the week at Incarnate Word Academy High School.
Incarnate Word Sisters Irma Gonzalez, Annette Wagner, Barbara Netek, Rosa Ortiz, and Mary Paul Hon came to the event to show their support.
Our congregation, in the summer of 2000, made a statement against the death penalty. We support any activity in that direction, remarked Sister Annette Wagner.
Sister Barbara Netek put it simply, We are pro-life.
The Journey of Hope was brought to Corpus Christi by the local chapter of Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
More information about the abolishment of the death penalty and Journey of Hope can be found at the following web sites: and