Faith in Focus: Called to Death Row

One February day last year, I was working at my office as Dominican formation director, when I received a call from Karen Pollard, B.V.M., of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Criminal Justice Ministry. She told me that a prisoner on death row in Potosi Correctional Institute, about 70 miles from St. Louis, was asking for a Catholic priest to visit him regularly. Was I interested?

The call took me by surprise. I had participated in vigils and called the governor’s office often to indicate my opposition to the death penalty. However, I had not considered any further action. I responded, I feel like Sister Helen Prejean!

I decided that I would volunteer to visit this prisoner as my schedule allowed. I spoke to Mary Ott, the attorney who originally made the request. She told me the story of Robert (Bob) Walls, who had been sentenced to death for his participation in the murder of an elderly St. Louis man in 1985. Bob’s execution was expected to be scheduled soon, and he received few visitors. Ms. Ott told me that she would call Bob and tell him of my interest. After receiving the necessary clearance, I found myself riding down to Potosi one May morning with Martin Hadican, the second lawyer working on the case. On the long drive I wondered what Bob would be like. I had not met a convicted killer before. Would he be like Charles Manson or Hannibal Lecter?

We finally arrived at the prison. After passing through security, we were seated in a waiting room. I will never forget the first time I saw Bob. I was amazed at how ordinary he looked. He was a young man of medium height, slender build, neatly cut brown hair and mustache. I was impressed with his knowledge and articulateness. We talked about religion and God, among other matters. He told me he wanted to be baptized. I said I would be happy to talk to him further about his baptism. Bob was a little cocky, but my concern about talking with him was unfounded. Throughout my visits, I was impressed with his courtesy. I can honestly say that I never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone or blame others for his fate. As we prepared to leave, I asked if he wanted me to return. He said, Yeah, sure. So I made arrangements to return the following week.

My second visit went well. Bob and I talked easily about faith, the church, God, the afterlife. He said he had desired baptism for some time. I never doubted his sincerity. I told him I had to be away from St. Louis for three weeks, but promised to arrange the baptism for the week I returned. The day I left town, I learned that Bob’s execution date had been set for Wednesday, June 30, 1999, at 12:01 a.m. I was dumbfounded, since we did not expect a date so soon. I felt terrible that I had to be away at this time. While away, I made arrangements for the baptism, kept in touch with the lawyers, prayed a lot and wrote to Bob. I learned he had requested that I witness his execution. I knew from the start that it might come to this. Despite my fears, I knew that I could not refuse his request.

On June 22, I returned to Potosi and was escorted to the chapel. Bob strode into the chapel, carrying a catechism, which he proudly told me he had been reading. At the same time, he looked troubled. Unless something happened, he had only a week to live. He was very focused during the liturgy, however, and professed his faith with conviction. My brief homily dwelt on his response to God’s call. He was now claimed as a child of God, and nothing would ever change that fact. After the liturgy, Bob admitted that he was frightened and did not want next week to come. But he also felt a sense of peace after receiving the sacrament.

A few days later I returned to Potosi, and visited Bob for the first time behind a glass window. We spoke over a phone. He told me he felt more peaceful since the baptism. I broached the topic of his funeral, and asked if he had any favorite Scripture readings he wished to be read at the funeral. He said, How about the passage about the good thief? I told him I thought that was an appropriate choice.

The following Monday I returned to the prison. By this time I knew that Bob had been moved to a holding cell. I was escorted to the cell and saw him behind bars, like an animal in a cage, with no privacy. A guard remained in the small room at all times. No physical contact was permitted.

During my visit, a nurse came in to take his blood pressure and temperature. When she finished, she proclaimed cheerfully, You’re doing fine, as if she would soon be discharging him from a hospital. The language and attitude of prison staff during the last days focused on efficiency and sterility. Keep everything neat and clean.

During these final days, I was profoundly aware of the sacramental nature of touch. How terrible to deprive a man of human touch in the last hours of his life. When I asked to bring Bob the Eucharist on his last day, the request was initially denied. When I persisted, I was told that I could bring him Communion, as long as I did not touch him!

The procedures for the night of the execution were described to me in a matter-of-fact fashion. We’ve had a lot of experience with this, one prison official said. The witnesses would be able to see Bob, and he could see us during the execution. Then it would look as if he were going to sleep. This was a haunting phrase I heard many times during those last days. Just like he’s going to sleep became another sanitary image for the unnamed reality of death.

Before leaving on Monday I reminded Bob of his baptism. You are a child of God now. You’re in God’s hands. I asked what he’d like me to say if the media asked me for a statement. Just tell ’em I’ve gone home, Bob said with a smile.

When I saw him on Tuesday, the morning of the execution, he was agitated, pacing and smoking. The television news was reporting plans for the execution, as well as scheduled protests. I told Bob that his story had touched many people, who were writing, calling and praying for him. He was moved by this. I left and returned a couple of hours later.

Late that afternoon, the governor announced that he would not commute Bob’s sentence. I was with Bob at the time. He hung his head in silence, and I told him I was sorry. We sat quietly for a period of time. We watched the evening news from his cell as they reported the plans for the execution. It was eerie watching the newscast and knowing I was with the person at the place they were talking about. I was aware that, had I not been in my privileged position, I would have thought Bob was some hardened and dangerous criminal, rather than the young man sitting across from me whom I had come to know.

That evening I brought the Eucharist. I read the Scripture passages to Bob that I would use for the funeral. From Romans, I read Nothing can separate us from the love of God. I told Bob to remember the words from the Gospel of Luke he had chosen: The good thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Then the response of Jesus: This day you will be with me in paradise. I looked at him and said, And you will be, you know. Do you believe that? Yes, he replied. I do too, I said. I told him to keep repeating those phrases as they were preparing him for death. He would soon be with God, or, in his own words, he would soon be home. Then he was ready to receive Communion. We prayed and the guard opened the enclosure in the cell, so I could reach in and put the consecrated host in his hand. I was grateful for this sacramental exchange. I told him that he could be certain that Jesus would be with him in his final hours.

At 10:00 a psychologist from the prison came in. The psychologist was to be with Bob in his last hours, to help prepare him for death. In our secular society, she was expected to perform the role of the chaplain. The psychologist told him what to expect. She repeated the familiar refrain, You don’t have to be afraid. You won’t feel any pain. It’ll be just like going to sleep.

Before I left, I told Bob that I was proud of him, and that I would never forget him. He thanked me for everything and told me that he loved me. He said he wanted to look at me during the execution. I told him he could do that, while inside I wondered if I’d be strong enough. I told him that I loved him too. When they came for me at 11:15, I gave him a blessing and left.

I was taken to the room where I had visited Bob. Along with some prison officials, those he had asked to be his witnesses were also gathered: the Rev. Paul Powell, a Methodist prison chaplain, Mr. Hadican, and Bob’s stepbrother and his wife. At 11:55 we were taken to a viewing area. Blinds were drawn. Two women stood on either side of the window and opened the blinds on cue. We could see Bob with a sheet over him, so that only his head was exposed. Across from us were other witnesses. Behind him, not visible to us, were the medical people. Bob turned to his right side, looked at us, and said, I love you. I blessed him with the Sign of the Cross, the symbol of his suffering and redemption, as big as I could so that he could see. Then he turned and looked straight ahead. I saw him shudder once, then close his eyes. He did not move again. After about five minutes, a voice over the public address system announced, The operation was successful. It was as if they had removed his appendix! I thought they could at least have acknowledged his death. Then the blinds were drawn, and we were taken to a waiting van that took us to our cars.

I met two Dominicans and one other priest friend at the parking lot of a nearby restaurant. My first words to them were, We’re not much better than the Nazis. We’ve devised a sanitary, efficient way to kill people.

I wondered where the governor was that night. He was certainly far away from Potosi Correctional Institute. The state authorized this murder, yet the ones who authorized it are nowhere to be seen. Institutionalized violence is easier the further we distance ourselves from it.

The funeral was attended by members of Bob’s immediate family, the lawyers and a few close friends. I kept it simple, yet personal. It was an emotional experience for us all. We recognized that he had indeed gone home to God.

I was called to be a witness. Therefore I must testify to what I have seen and heard. My call to be with Robert Walls in his last month was my most profound ministerial experience as a Dominican. I knew Robert for only a short time, but he was a man who experienced conversion, asked for baptism and, in death, knew he was going home. He was far from perfect. I do not deny his participation in a brutal crime. But he also possessed the dignity of a child of God. And he did not deserve to be a victim of the state’s institutionalized violence. No one does. If the state of Missouri and those who work in the prison system were so confident about what they were doing, I would not have heard such phrases as It’s just like going to sleep, or, The operation was successful.

Is Missouri a better place, now that it has executed Robert Walls? I think not. As Bob said, it has just created another victim of violence. Contrary to what I heard proclaimed, the operation was not successful.

10 years 6 months ago
Thank you for Thomas Condon’s article “Called to Death Row” (4/1). My friends and family often criticize me as an emotionless 22-year-old, but the article broke my stoicism. Meeting Robert Willis and learning his story brought me to tears. My emotions were for Robert Willis. My emotions were also for a blind, broken society that can condone—justify—a punishment as barbaric as death.

10 years 6 months ago
Thank you for Thomas Condon’s article “Called to Death Row” (4/1). My friends and family often criticize me as an emotionless 22-year-old, but the article broke my stoicism. Meeting Robert Willis and learning his story brought me to tears. My emotions were for Robert Willis. My emotions were also for a blind, broken society that can condone—justify—a punishment as barbaric as death.

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