Searching for Hope: Reflections in preparation for a vigil against the death penalty
by Dennis R. Longmire, PhD.
College of Criminal Justice
Sam Houston State University
   

Thursday, January 15, 1998 - 11:00 a.m.

I am writing this essay as part of my preparation for this afternoon's execution of Lesly Gosch. From 5:00 p.m. until about 6:30 p.m., I will be standing in front of the "Walls Unit" of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Institutional Division with a candle and prayers as the people of Texas kill another one of my brothers. There is a lot of attention being given to the forthcoming execution of Karla Faye Tucker, but little notice has been directed toward Lesly's case. I will be there for both executions. Just as I have been there for countless others. I stand on the corner of 12th and I street in my hometown of Huntsville, Texas as an expression of my opposition to killing. Killing by anyone including the State is, I believe, fundamentally wrong and so I have spent a lot of time on that corner and a lot of people have asked me why I keep this vigil.

My first response is always that it is a particularly difficult vigil to keep. It's hot on that corner during the East Texas summers and it gets cold sometimes during February's freezing rains. But the physical climate does not present me with the primary difficulties associated with my vigil. Instead, it is the social climate that is most depressing and sometimes quite chilling. Popular culture, including all forms of the media, presents an image of a contemporary American culture that overwhelmingly approves of the death penalty with Texans leading the way with significantly greater proportions of its citizens supposedly supporting capital punishment.

It is depressing to me when the news reporters ask me "Why do you come out here when you know that 90% of the people in Texas support the death penalty?" First, these people almost always overstate the proportion of people who support this penalty. Scientific studies show that in contemporary America, about 70% of the adult population (18 years of age or older) say "yes" when they are asked if they support the death penalty for the crime of murder. Texans do not differ from the rest of the nation with about 71% of them saying "yes" to the same question (see Survey Research Program at http://www.shsu.edu/~icc_drl/ for a summary of the results of several studies regarding public support for the death penalty both in Texas and throughout the rest of the nation). In general, studies show that the proportion of people who actually support the death penalty varies significantly depending on the different socio- demographic backgrounds of the groups being talked about. Women and people of color tend to be least likely to support the death penalty and some studies show that the more formal education one has had, the less likely they are to support the death penalty. I try to remind the reporters of these realities whenever I get the chance but the most significant lesson I try to impart to them during my "interviews" is that people in general are not as strongly supportive of the death penalty as the simplistic figures noted above might suggest.

Public opinion studies consistently show that if people are asked more specific questions about their support for the death penalty, the proportion of supporters begins to drop significantly. For example, numerous studies show that considerably fewer people support the death penalty when they know that a "true life sentence without the possibility for parole" is available as a sentencing option. In the 1997 Texas Crime Poll, only about 58% of the adult population say they would continue to support the death penalty if a "true life sentence" were available. Data from other states show that support for the death penalty becomes even lower when you include with the "true life sentence" option the requirement that the convicted murderer perform some form of work during his/her term of confinement and contributes money toward a fund that can be paid to the "secondary victims" (family members and loved ones of the murder victim) of their crime.

It is depressing to me that the popular media continues to perpetuate the myth that we so much support for the practice of killing as a solution to our "problems." American culture has been condemned by some as being a "culture of death" because of the exceptionally high rates of both criminal and "legal" killings. Perhaps there is no surprise in the revelation that the U.S. leads the free world in murder as well as executions. And if you include in the definition of "legal" killings, physician assisted suicides and abortion, there are no other nations that compare to our "legal kill" ratio. And simplistic results from public opinion surveys reported by the popular media consistently shows that the majority of citizens supposedly support the "legal killings." To say that such conclusions are "depressing" is an understatement sometimes.

Although I can generate a semblance of hope from knowing the reality about the inconstancy of the general public's support for the death penalty , it is sometimes chilling as I stand on the corner and hear the jeers and songs of praise for the killings shouted from pick-up trucks driving by filled with "death penalty supporters" who stumble upon the vigil as they take a short-cut to avoid traffic on the main streets. Many of these "supporters" are students attending Sam Houston State University, some of whom are in my classes and some of whom avoid my classes simply because I stand on the corner. These "drive by hecklers" are regulars at the vigils and sometimes represent a serious threat to those of us standing in opposition to the punishments.

A different kind of stress is generated when there are death penalty "supporters" standing on the corner along with those of us in opposition. On one dark cold March morning, when the executions were being conducted immediately after 12:00 a.m., family members of the man being executed had to be physically restrained to keep them from attacking an obviously inebriated "supporter" who tried to get his friends to join him in the chant "Fry the Mother Fucker!" The brother of the man being executed was standing beside me while his mother was inside the death chamber, watching her youngest son being put to death. From his culture, what the "supporter" had yelled required that he protect his mother's reputation and without the intervention of several of his friends, there may have been serious consequences following the careless, drunken chant. I took the opportunity to advise this young man and his friends that they were in serious jeopardy if he continued to sing his little song. He and his friends quickly disappeared.

Hopeful Experiences on the Corner of 12th and Avenue I

The interactions I have had while standing on the corner have also been positive and hopeful. I have met lawyers who worked on the cases of the men being executed and stood beside them as they wept in defeat while their clients were being put to death. These lawyers and countless others who never make it to the corner give me a sense of hope that there will one day be an end to the death penalty in the United States. On an individual, case by case level, their legal skills have helped to save the lives of many people some of whom have been completely exonerated of the crimes for which they were to be executed. On a societal level, the recent call from the American Bar Association for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty took considerable courage and gives me a renewed sense of respect and faith in the legal profession.

On many occasions, I have been joined on the corner by others who share my general opposition to the death penalty. Most consistent has been the presence of members of the Houston Chapter of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A group of seven or eight of the Coalition's membership often come to stage their own vigil. Their style is quite bold and confrontational, unlike my own, but they are steadfast abolitionists and from their general work, I get a stronger sense of hope that our common vision will one day become a reality. There is considerable diversity among the abolitionist community as to why and how to protest against the death penalty. The common vision, however, is clearly in everyone's focus. And I believe that anything that is the object of so much faith filled attention will one day become reality.

The final group of people giving me hope as I stand on the corner in my vigil consists of people from outside of the United States who are drawn to Huntsville because of the execution process. This group includes members of the foreign media who frequently come through Huntsville while working on stories about the death penalty for publication or broadcast in their home countries. It also includes people from foreign countries who have become "pen pals" with men on death row who are being executed, official representatives from international agencies and organizations monitoring allegations of human rights violations, as well as members of the foreign legal community who come to see the place where so many executions take place to prove to themselves that what they read about is real. Texas's bold and forthright use of the death penalty is of interest to the international community for a wide variety of reasons. What is consistent among this group, however, is a sense of disbelief that a country as sophisticated as the U.S. continues to hold so firmly to the archaic practice of putting its citizens to death under the guise of justice. There is an interesting irony in the fact that the U.S. portrays itself to the international community as a leader in the pursuit of human rights and justice and yet, it is that same community that condemns the U.S. for its continued reliance on capital punishment. The U.S. would not be eligible for membership in the European Council of Governments because of its insistence on maintaining the option to kill members of its citizenry.

The confluence of experiences I have had while standing on the corner of 12th and I leave me with a great hope that the death penalty will be abolished from the U.S. legal system sometime in the not too distant future. I believe that when the U.S. finally sets aside the death penalty , it is going to be because of the influence of a myriad of different pressures but that it will be the consistent, vigilant gaze of horror from the international community that will cause an end to this practice once and for all. I came to this belief during the vigil against the death penalty held during the execution of Michael Sharp, one of the leading forces behind the Lamp of Hope Project. As I stood on the corner that evening, I struggled with the question "How can we maintain any hope that things will change?" The question of "hope" was very present that evening and a newspaper journalist from Germany asked whether or not I thought there would ever be an end to the practice of capital punishment in Texas. I started to respond with cynicism and skepticism about the possibility and was stopped by my realization that Michael Sharp's execution had captured the attention of several different members of the foreign press and that one of the people Michael called on to witness his execution was a young lawyer named Jean-Bernard Dahmoune from France who is working on a research project through the University of Paris focusing on a comparative analysis of the death penalty movement in Europe vs. the United States. I came to the sudden realization that the international community can exercise considerable pressure on the United States and responded to the reporter's question accordingly. Jean-Bernard has subsequently assumed a role with The Lamp of Hope Project working to add an international dimension to the group's work and it will not surprise me to learn that one day, he will be recognized as one of the major forces behind the ultimate abolition of the death penalty in the U.S.A.

When Americans realize that the rest of the free world is looking toward us with horrid disbelief that our actions are not consistent with the fundamental values we proclaim, we will be forced to recognize that our system of justice is not the place for an act of vengeance to be played out. And we will also be forced to acknowledge that fear and revenge are the only two real "justifications" for the death penalty setting aside any pretense of deterrence, restitution, or retributive justice. The critical eye of our international neighbors will compel us to reclaim a commitment to the fundamental principles of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, even those amongst us who have offended us most severely. Paraphrasing the words of Sister Helen Prejean's Prayer to Abolish the Death Penalty, I feel the pressure of the international community compelling us as a nation to "Expand and deepen our hearts so that we may love as the Lord loves, even those among us who have caused the greatest pain by taking life."

Friday, January 16, 1998 - 9:30am

I had to interrupt the writing of this essay to give a television interview about the Karla Faye Tucker execution that is supposed to be broadcast on The Today Show. Immediately following the interview, I went to the corner and began my vigil during Lesly's execution. I was alone during most of the vigil but was joined at the very end by two former students, one of whom is a member of the Texas Coalition. Their presence was a reminder to me that I need to keep a hopeful attitude about the students I come into contact with because some of them are actively opposed to the death penalty and others are at least willing to reconsider their positions in light of information gleaned from my work as well as the work of others who write about capital punishment. We stood together on the corner together for a long time because Lesly's execution was ultimately "stayed" and it wasn't until 7:00 that we ended our vigil. Ironically, we were informed that Lesly's execution had "gone off as scheduled" by the correctional officer who had unwittingly attended the vigil as an employee of the State assigned to lift the ribbon blocking public entry into the TDCJ parking lot whenever a vehicle was leaving. Each of us went home confused because we had never seen the witnesses enter the Walls unit. The march of the witnesses to and from the execution chamber is the only way those of us in vigil know what is happening. When the witnesses enter the Walls Unit, we know that death is near. When they leave, we know that it has come. This is usually the only way those of us involved in the vigil know when the process has ended. On occasion one or more of the witnesses will come to the corner and tell about their last moments with the condemned man but this is rare and usually only occurs when there are other family members and loved ones connected to the man being executed who have joined in the vigil because they have not been able to actually witness the execution. But there was no-one connected to Lesly Gosch on this particular evening and I assumed that my attention had been distracted by an interviewer when the march of witnesses had taken place so I returned home to conclude this essay and to continue my prayers for peace and hope.

I awoke this morning and began another ritualistic day for me with a cup of coffee and the morning edition of the Huntsville Item. My attention was immediately drawn to the headlines about a last minute stay being granted to Lesly and a somewhat "stayed" story about how he had been returned to the Ellis Unit pending the U.S. Supreme Court's review of his appeal. I was exhilarated by the hope that Lesly and others might be spared the ultimate sanction based on the review of his case. I was also angry that the correctional officer had misinformed us the evening before. Immediately, however, my anger was replaced with prayers of joy that Lesly and those who had come to be with him the evening before could spend another day together with hope that they will never have to experience another night like the evening of January 15th, 1998.

Lesly's case offers hope for all of us who stand in opposition to the death penalty. I pray that our collective vision will soon become a reality. The enlightenment that shines throughout the abolitionist community, including The Lamp of Hope project will one day prevail. I know it will.