Cherishing Life

The U.S. federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., is a harsh and punishing place, as correctional facilities are meant to be. Privileges for relatively normal communication that are allowed the general population do not apply to those on Death Row. A separate wing shelters the men condemned to death. (Dog Unit, the guards call it, to identify the D for Death.)

Prisoners there eat in separate cells, approximately six by ten feet. Solid doors and walls prevent direct conversation; the men communicate by speaking out of their narrow windows. Their voices bounce back from a nearby building. There is no privacy. Something sinister pulsates through Dog Unit. A few staffers want to get the killing started. They’ve been trained to conduct the federal executions for which this unit was designated in July 1999. Most of the prison employees, like the condemned men, would rather have a moratorium declared or clemency granted to those on the row; but in a place of such confinement, people know who their enemies are.

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I had never planned to meet a murderer. The first came uninvited into my life in December 1998. Neither the envelope that contained his letter, nor its salutation, bore my name. Dear Cherish Life Circle, it began. My name is David Paul Hammer.... I am scheduled to be executed by the United States Government on Jan. 14, 1999 at 10:00 a.m.

The Cherish Life Circle is a group I founded in 1993 to provide support for a circle of friends opposed to the death penalty, which had surfaced as a major issue during the New York gubernatorial race. We, religious sisters from three congregations, a few priests and some lay people, had united in various combinations over the years around social issues in conflict with our Gospel values. We had protested the militarism of the 70’s and 80’s, the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Persian Gulf war and the lingering embargo preventing food and medicine from reaching the people of Iraq. When capital punishment threatened our neighborhoods, we came together to pray and plan how we might expand the dialogue by presenting a Christian perspective. We understood that many good people, including relatives and friends, supported capital punishment. Our task, as we saw it, was to reveal our position in a non-condemnatory manner. What we needed was a tool for the task.

Diane Shea, a founding member of the Cherish Life Circle, ended our search by providing the Declaration of Life. Its author is Vic Hummert. With his consent and a few adaptations, this document became the centerpiece of our efforts. Signers affirm the value of life and oppose its destruction. If I am murdered, it says, I don’t want my killer executed, no matter how heinous the crime or how much I may have suffered. Thousands have signed the declaration in the United States and abroad. Those who register with us receive a wallet card summarizing their wishes. This tool has received several waves of publicity. Its mention in an Oklahoma newspaper found its way to David, leading him to us.

He had two requests: first, prayers for himself, for his victim, Andrew Marti, and for the Marti family. Second, in light of his anticipated execution, he wanted someone to provide spiritual guidance for the last weeks of his life. The first request was easily filled. The second, coming as it did shortly before Christmas, was not. Phone calls to organizations and parishes around the prison were fruitless. On Dec. 30, having obtained the requisite clearances, Ed Doherty, another member of the Cherish Life Circle, and I made the trip to Allenwood.

Three guards brought David into the small room where we waited. His torso, feet and hands were bound. His words were free. Confession, repentance, remorse, anguish, gratitude created a sea of sorrow on which we floated our gifts of faith, encouragement and counsel.

Since then David, who has spent 23 of his 42 years behind bars, has had two execution dates lifted, and he continues to lodge appeals for presidential clemency. Our long-distance guidance has been sustained through four visits, dozens of phone calls and hundreds of letters.

On Oct. 27, 2000, David was received into the Catholic Church by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, O.S.B., of Indianapolis. He took Francis for his confirmation name and made his first Communion. I became his godmother. It didn’t matter that he and Jeff Paul, 24, who also was confirmed, received the sacraments in their adjacent cages. Both men said the experience filled them with the greatest peace they’d ever known. David declared the day the most important, the happiest of my life. It was one of mine, too.

The Cherish Life Circle will continue what it started out to do: preach, teach, offer study days and annual services for families of murder victims. But those of us who have let David into our lives have been forever changed.

We believe we are doing something of what Jesus intended when he said, Do this in memory of me. As the eucharistic mandate permeates the whole of our lives, we experience the power of a closing refrain from Les Miserables. It cautions, To love another person is to see the face of God.

It has become that simple and that complicated.

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