One of Us: How a death row inmate changed my outlook on life

A few months ago, members of the Cherish Life Circle, a group that works to end the death penalty, had gathered to plan an event to mark our 20th anniversary. We sat down and immediately concentrated on practical elements of the celebration. We discussed guest speakers: Kevin Doyle, New York State’s last capital defender, and Helen Prejean, C.S.J., our country’s best-known death penalty opponent. We noted the support of our bishop, Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyln. We even secured the place, the Convent of Mercy, and we identified members willing to help with the details of funding and promotion. There was more: concerns about timing and publicity, literature to be distributed, information about our annual service for families of murder victims—the nitty gritty of planning such an event.

Then the phone rang. It was Providence calling to remind us of the why and wherefore of our event, which takes place this month. The voice came from a cell on death row in Terre Haute, Ind.

Advertisement

“How y’all doin’ there?” asked David Paul Hammer.

David first contacted the Cherish Life Circle in December 1998 after reading about our circulation of the Declaration of Life, a document that allows individuals to oppose the death penalty by insisting that, if murdered, they do not want their killer executed.

In the 15 years since he first asked for our prayerful support, David has faced—and been spared from—three execution dates: the first in 1994, the second in 2000, the third in 2004. Today he awaits a date for a new trial. Its timing is uncertain.

What is certain is the transformation in the man once considered “the most dangerous prisoner in Allenwood.” That Pennsylvania prison, far from his native Oklahoma, is where this longtime inmate took the life of a cellmate—a crime he regrets with all his heart and for which he blames only himself—not his childhood spent in poverty and abuse as a son of migrant workers, not the social systems that failed to protect him and not the power of the drugs that twisted his mind.

The year after David first contacted us in Brooklyn, he was transferred to Terre Haute. There he responded to encouragement from his devoted attorney and from a Protestant chaplain, a Sister of Providence from nearby St. Mary of the Woods and this writer.

A few months after our initial meeting, I sent David a small, beautiful autumn leaf from the Weston Priory in Vermont, only to have it returned in a big envelope stamped “UNAUTHORIZED MATERIAL.”

Much of what the prison system does authorize is ugly and dehumanizing. Some inmates are broken by the deprivation; others devise creative ways to compensate for the losses. Some will relieve their desire to have something to care for by capturing and adopting a mouse, as did the prisoner in Stephen King’s The Green Mile and as David did in real life.

Some death row inmates, like David, confined to a single cell, manage to think outside the box. With money sent to him, David has sponsored the schooling of a child in Haiti. He has used his artistic talent to help produce Christmas cards; the profits from their sale aid children in need. In a dozen years over $70,000 has found its way to child-care institutions as near as Indianapolis and as far away as the island of Jamaica.

David got his G.E.D. in prison through television courses, along with several associate degrees. One qualified him as a paralegal. He uses that competence to help death row inmates with their appeals and other legal concerns.

Before his second scheduled execution date, David asked to become a Catholic because, he explained, “In my life those who have been best to me have been Catholics, and I want to die one of you.”

David does his best to live as one of us. His prayer life is deep; his spiritual interests are many. Several years ago, he was accepted as an associate of the Sisters of Providence and is devoted to their foundress, St. Mother Theodore Guerin.

Because David’s life was spared, many have been helped. What he has been allowed is God’s gift of time; the opportunity to choose good over evil, hope instead of despair. Not surprisingly his favorite prayer is that of St. Francis, which includes, “where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

There is no guarantee that anyone so spared would make the choices that have transformed David. But no one has the right to deny another person the opportunity God offers. The mission statement of the Cherish Life Circle affirms its members’ commitment to “strive for a society that refuses to solve its problems by the willful termination of life at any stage by any means.”

Pope John Paul II understood this. He wrote in “The Gospel of Life” (1995), “Modern society has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”

And so The Cherish Life Circle is happy to celebrate 20 years of opposing the death penalty that would deprive a person of the chance to reform. And something else has happened to us. We have been changed by what we have learned along the way, by the good people who support our efforts and by David, whose life has touched ours in unexpected ways.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nancy Walton-House
4 years 2 months ago
Powerful story of redemption and community. Thanks for sharing it.
RoseAnne Cleary
4 years 2 months ago
Newly retired, and casting about for my "next," I met the Cherish Life Circle. When asked if I cared to exchange letters with a Death Row inmate, I was glad for the opportunity. I'd always been a writer and, even as e-mails, texts and tweets came along, I maintained a stock of writing paper, savoring sending missives cum stamps. "David Paul Hammer," Sister Camille said to me, telling me his life's story in brief. As I sat down to write the next day, all my mind's eye could see was a prisoner. My customary ease in letter-writing abandoned me and left me speechless and still. I finally said what I always say when I don't know what to say: "Dear David, I have no idea what to say.." As our correspondence progressed, I savored his bulky letters full of details about his life and more importantly, about how he was learning to handle them with prayer. I included him in my family's goings-on, so when my son and his family re-located to Taiwan, he was sympathetic and sensitive to my sadness. Several years on, a child was born to them with a life-threatening brain injury. I felt David's prayers as part of our own. Unexpectedly, so many of the doctors' dire prognoses fell away that we dared to believe in little Peter's survival. After nearly three years of treatments and therapy, of family life and great love, our little darling's life was stilled. What happened next will tell you more about David Hammer than all my other words. At one point, David had asked for a photo of Peter for his "prayer corner." Soon after the baby's death, a large package unexplainably arrived from the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute. As the brown paper fell away, I beheld an 18 x 30 hand- painted portrait of our grandson. When I sent a photo of it to his grieving parents, his Mama explained how it was different from the original in that this portrait was of a healthy little Peter, that this was "his first portrait in Heaven." This from a man sentenced to a lethal injection three times, a man society and the law have found disposable, yet a man who brings guidance, comfort, spirituality, and a human presence to all who know him. How many more David Hammers must there be?!
Anne Straitiff
4 years 2 months ago
Several months ago, I agreed to send birthday cards to prisoners in our state on behalf of our diocesan prison ministry program. That was easy enough to do. Then, after a few months, names of people on death row were added to my "responsibility." I also thought I would be able to handle sending cards to this new group of people who were faceless to me. Then I noticed that one of the names on the list was that of a well-known serial killer in my metropolitan area who killed 11 women and buried their bodies on his property. It was VERY difficult for me to send a card to that man, but I did it. I need to hear stories like the one above to keep me in the right frame of mind for this ministry. I need to focus on what these people CAN be and not what they HAVE been. Thank you.
Naseem Rakha
4 years 2 months ago
Thank you for this beautiful reminder of the potential each human has to offer.
az chowdhury
4 years 1 month ago
Learn more about Prophet Jesus (PBUH) and his arrival to earth in the near future. http://islamicsocialsystems.blogspot.com/
Dudley Sharp
4 years 1 month ago
It is most likely that Hammer's transformation for the better only ocurred because he is incarcerted. Hammer was first imprisoned at the age of 19. With the exception of two brief escapes during the 1980s, he served 21 of the first 41 years of his life incarcerated for a multitude of offenses, including larceny, shooting with intent to kill, kidnapping and telephoning in a bomb threat. In all, he is serving 1232 years for his 11 convictions. In April, 1996, in the Special Housing Unit in the U.S. Penitentiary, Allenwood, Hammer strangled his cellmate, 27-year old Andrew Hunt Marti (Federal Bureau of Prisons# 58008-065[5]) to death using a piece of homemade cord.
Dudley Sharp
4 years 1 month ago
Pope Francis states: that “capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender.”(9) This is a very odd comment, in that there is no greater incentive to repent than a pending execution that is known in advance. Romano Amerio states the obvious: Some opposing capital punishment ". . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory."(10) "In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened." (10) "In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.” (10) Even a protestant Christian layman states the obvious: "One offensive aspect of this objection is the puny view of God that underlies it. God may be able to turn a murderer into a Christian if we give Him 30 years to do it – but not 30 days? Only by disobeying God can we populate His Kingdom for Him? It begins to sound a little like, "Let us do evil that good may come." (11) "If we spare those that God has commanded us to exterminate, we can't pretend we did it for His glory! The question once again is shown to be: What did God say? with the follow-up, Will we obey? What God said is clear: Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:6) He didn't say that to the Jews (there were no Jews yet); He said it to Noah and his family – to the entire population of the earth." (11) Furthermore, a unique benefit of the death penalty is that the offender knows the day of their death and therefore has a huge advantage over the rest of us and, most certainly over the innocent murder victim. ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: (p. 116). Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey. A Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College, Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992 St. Thomas Aquinas: "The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146. 9) Pope Francis http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/papal-message-reaffirms-call-to-abolish-death-penalty#ixzz2XEdlpQbI 10) “Amerio on capital punishment “, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,www.domid.blogspot.com/2007/05/amerio-on-capital-punishment.html 11) Jesus and the death penalty: "They may become Christians", Dan Popp, June 23, 2013 http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/popp/130623
Dudley Sharp
4 years 1 month ago
. There is this additional problem: CCC 2267: "without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself". The Catechism finds that we should end the death penalty in order to provide alternate sanctions "without definitively taking away from him (the unjust aggressor) the possibility of redeeming himself" (2267) First, the Catechism states, above, that the wrongdoer redeems himself. The biblical/theological realities find that all wrongdoers can/should seek redemption, but that God provides redemption to the wrongdoer by His grace. Wrongdoers can only seek redemption, they cannot provide it to themselves. Again, a poorly written section. Secondly, the Church is, hereby, stating that the death penalty is "taking away from him (the executed party) the possibility of redeeming himself". (2267) The Catechism is stating that the God invoked sanction of death takes away the possibility of redemption. Think about that. There is nothing to defend such a claim, in such a context. All of our sins have us die "early". Is there a case, whereby God has erased the possibility of our redemption, solely because of our earthly and "early" deaths? Such an interpretation is, in context, flatly, against God's message and cannot stand. The biblical record, its interpretations, the Magesterium and virtually all knowledgeable Christian scholars and laymen, Catholic or not, find that the universal blessing that God gives us is that we all have the opportunity of being redeemed "before we die". The death penalty does not/cannot take that away anymore than does a car wreck, cancer, old age or any other "earthly" and "early" death, meaning all deaths, because of our sins. We all die "early" because of our sins. It is as if the Church had, completely, forgotten the meaning of St. Dismas' death, his words exchanged with Jesus and the promise to come. (8) Thus, the Catechism, wrongly, finds that all "early" deaths, meaning all earthly deaths, negate the possibility of our being redeemed. Such is an astonishing claim, if not much worse. In God's perfection, we suffer an "early" death, because of our sins. The Catechism wrongly tells us that our "early" deaths takes away the possibility of our being redeemed. It can't and does not. God gives all of us the opportunity of redemption, in His grace, before our earthly and early deaths, no matter what that death may be. This newest Catechism cannot rewrite that, even though it is trying to. 8) Luke 23:39-43 "Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Jesus) replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (NAB). It is not about the method of earthly death, but the message of eternal salvation.
Dudley Sharp
4 years 1 month ago
Read this in the context of David Paul Hammer. Pope John Paul II understood this. He wrote in “The Gospel of Life” (1995), “Modern society has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” Hammer was in prison when he murdered Andrew Hunt Marti, denying him more time to reform. As Pope John Paul II may not have known, it is, often, quite difficult to render criminals harmless, In reality, the only way to "render them harmless" is death. Hammer being just one example of many. Prisoners harm and murder, again, in prison, after escape, after improper release and by directing criminal enterprises both in prison and in the free world, through proxies, as well as direct control, via contraband cell phones.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A spokesman for the archdiocese described the meeting as “personal” in nature and aimed at “renewing a friendship that goes back 15 years or so.”
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 14, 2017
Black women cannot be expected to continue to save white people from the poor choices they make.
Anthea ButlerDecember 14, 2017
After a visit to Christ in the Desert, I knew it was not the monks whose lifestyle I should question.
Michael DauschDecember 14, 2017
Fidelis Mukonori, S.J. Photo by Russell Pollitt, S.J.
Just two hours after army tanks rolled out onto the streets of Harare in November, Father Mukonori got a call asking him to meet with the army’s generals.
Russell Pollitt, S.J.December 14, 2017