DEATH FELL ON ALABAMA
What you do to the least of these, you do to me. – Jesus of Nazareth
by Father Sebastian Muccilli
For over three months I lived with the disturbing news that a friend on death row in Alabama’s Holman Prison was slated for execution. I continued hoping, up until the day of the execution, that some intervention by Governor Bob Riley or the U.S. Supreme Court would delay that date to allow for DNA testing to prove the innocence of Darrell Grayson. In the four years I had been corresponding with Darrell, and upon reading his published poetry, I had come to believe in his innocence of the charges of rape and of murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death 27 years before at age 19.
When I learned that Darrell wanted me present for the execution, I was deeply touched but dreaded witnessing the terrible scene and the events leading up to it. About three weeks before the scheduled execution, I went to the AAA travel agency in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where a friend booked a flight to Mobile, and arranged for the rental of a car to drive from the Mobile airport to Atmore, Alabama, where Holman Prison is located. I arrived in Atmore in the late afternoon of July 24th. I didn’t sleep well that night, of course. I made the drive to the prison the next morning arriving about 9:30.
Darrell had arranged for my visitor admittance to the prison some weeks before. I had provided him with my status as clergy, address, and social security number. I parked the car in the designated area and approached the entrance to the prison. As I did so, a guard in the lookout tower adjacent to the barbed wire fence surrounding the facility shouted down to ask the reason for my presence. I shouted up to him that I was there to visit the prison chaplain and Darrell Grayson. There was a wait of about 5 minutes in the blinding sun while someone presumably checked into whether I was approved for admission. I entered through two heavy and imposing metal entrance gates controlled electronically by the tower guard, and climbed the steps to the entrance to the administrative area of the prison. A woman in the first office I came to tried locating the chaplain. I wanted to call on him as a courtesy. When she could not find him, she advised me to proceed down the hall to the visiting area.
I came to another secured area with a windowed metal door. It opened electronically after I knocked on the glass window. In that area sat 3 guards. I was frisked by one of the male guards; a woman guard asked for and took my photo ID, car key, and watch after which I signed in. Then, I was directed to wait at another electronically locked door. It was opened by a guard located on the far side of the opposite wall of the visiting room. The guard could observe me as I could dimly view him through a window in the wall. That wall also had a door, which led to the inner areas of the prison.
I was admitted to a large room with a long metal table and 12 plastic chairs. Darrell sat with his sister, two nephews, a niece, and a woman attorney. As I approached the table, Darrell, with a huge grin, rose and stood with his arms wide open in welcome. He told me immediately how happy he was that I had come to be with him and then he introduced me to the others. As the day progressed 2 other lawyers arrived. One of them said it was encouraging at this late date not to have heard yet from either the governor’s office or from the U.S. Supreme Court. We chatted with Darrell and one another until 4:30 pm when we all were alerted to leave.
On Thursday, July 26th, I arrived at the prison about 9:30 am and went through the same entry process as the day before. Only Darrell’s most trusted friend and loyal advocate for 10 years, Esther Brown, was present in the visiting room with him when I arrived. It was through her devoted efforts that Darrell came to terms with his talents and the realization of a teaching vocation. In explaining that to me in a private conversation the day before, he told me with satisfaction of the depth of admiration and acceptance he had from his peers and brothers on death row whose lives had been uplifted and changed by his personal bearing, encouragement, and by what he wrote while incarcerated.
It was because of Esther that Darrell Grayson and I became friends about four years ago. I had met Esther in 1967, when she and her family began attending Sunday Mass at the U.S. Navy chapel in Davisville, RI, where I, as a U.S. Navy chaplain, was stationed after serving 13 months in Vietnam. Because of her energetic, determined, and caring nature, under girded by many years of social work experience and a degree in Religious Studies from Providence College, she continues to take on her 73-year-old shoulders the burden of friendship and advocacy for death row inmates in Alabama’s Holman prison.
Esther and Darrell had worked tirelessly for a state moratorium of the death penalty. With Darrells’s urging, she also asked me to be the spiritual advisor to death row prisoners in Holman. In that capacity I had sent homilies and reflections that were occasionally published in their quarterly newsletter, On Wings of Hope. Darrell had been its editor since its inception as the voice of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, an in-house organization whose mission statement reads that its purpose is “Working together with families, friends, supporters and other advocates to educate the public and bring about the abolition of capital punishment.”
In late morning Darrell’s family and the three lawyers trickled into the visitors’ room. Also, the chaplain made an appearance and I petitioned him then to ask the warden to allow me to accompany Darrell into the death chamber – as Darrell had requested. (I dreaded the thought of that experience but I wanted to do what Darrell wanted.) I made it clear to the chaplain that neither Darrell nor I minded his being there also. He agreed to ask the warden. As that last day progressed there was no hint of fear in Darrell though I noted that he was not as calm as he had been the previous day. When it came time at noon for him to take leave of his family members and lawyers, I tried to stay physically remote in that large room. He warmly embraced individually his niece, his nephews, and his sister last, while conversing privately with each of them – an arm around their shoulders. I left shortly thereafter to allow time for Esther and Darrell to converse without the distraction of anyone else being present, assuring Darrell that I would return at 3:30. Before returning to the prison, and while I was in the parking lot of the motel, one of the lawyers came running up to me to show me the statement from Governor Riley noting that he had no intention of granting a stay of execution. I knew immediately that he would not have come to that decision without knowing that the Supreme Court had also refused to intervene.
I returned to the prison’s visiting space about 4:00 pm, Esther took her final leave of Darrell about 4:15. Within minutes 6 burly guards arrived along with the prison chaplain. Darrell was handcuffed and led through the door in the opposite wall. The guards followed Darrell; the chaplain and I followed behind the guards as we made our way through the prison precincts with somber-looking faces of silent prisoners observing this last walk of the man they had come to regard as their teacher. We passed through at least 3 other security sections until we reached an area that was painted white. This area held the death cell, where Darrell had been held for 5 days. Its white walls had no window. It was about 15 yards from the open door to the execution chamber, which was lit up as bright as an operating room for the grim task of taking human life. I could see the gurney upon which Darrell would lie for the intended execution by lethal injection.
Darrell entered the cell, which was then secured. He quickly asked for a cigarette and a light from a guard while also reaching for paper to begin writing final thoughts to his sister and to Esther. While Darrell was writing, I asked the chaplain whether my request to be with Darrell in the death chamber had been granted. He said that the request had not been approved. I worried immediately about how to tell him. Darrell asked for another cigarette and smoked it while completing the second letter and sealing the two envelopes holding his last written thoughts. As he tried to blow the second-hand smoke from his cell, smiling as he did so, he asked the guards to let me in. As I entered, he handed me the envelopes and asked that I give them both to Esther, saying, “She’ll know how to get this to my sister.” Then he sat on his cot and motioned me to do the same, facing him. He asked me to be sure to stay in touch with Esther and to befriend Jeff Rieber, the death-row inmate who was succeeding him as editor of the newsletter and Chairman of the Board of Project Hope for and End to the Death Penalty.
I took the opportunity to acknowledging his example of courage and fortitude to face the inevitable and that he was still being a teacher – even to me as well as the prison population. He listened with his eyes closed. I very slowly explained how deserving his body was for a final anointing, that his spirit had been held in a body deserving of that honor. I said the words accompanying the anointing of his forehead, eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands saying, “Through this holy anointing may God in love and mercy help you with the Grace of the Holy Spirit to realize how much God loves you and the tenderness of God’s affection for you.” I followed with a prayer for the dying. Lastly, I invoked the Litany of the Saints, deliberately emphasizing certain saints who I think reflected his gentle disposition, his courage, and his integrity. When I had finished, he embraced me with a grip I still can feel. While holding on to me with his mouth near my left ear, he asked, “You’ll be in there with me, right?”
When I told him that I didn’t get the permission to be in there with him, he jumped off the cot and went to the entrance of the cell, rattling the bars to get the attention of the guards. Darrell told them that he had purposely requested my presence with him in the death chamber. Immediately one guard got on the phone. I do not know whom he called but I presume it was the warden or deputy warden. While on the phone, the guard looked at Darrell while shaking his head no. I immediately went to Darrell, led him back to the cot and told him that he didn’t need me there, that his quiet dignity would see him through the ordeal and that I would be with him in spirit. He immediately composed himself, saying twice, “I’m not afraid.” Within seconds, a guard called into the cell, “Grayson, you have 5 minutes.”
Darrell took off his almost-new sneakers to place them in a plastic bag, gave them to one of the guards with the name of the friend for whom they were intended. He glanced at me with a smile, and with silent dignity began his walk to execution in his stocking feet. I was escorted in the opposite direction by a guard the long trek back to the entrance of the prison – in silence.
I was asked to do what no Christian could refuse to do; one, which anyone would dread, but yet, would be honored to fulfill in spite of the demands it makes on the heart. Even though I was with Darrell Grayson the last two days of his life, it was the intensity of the last 30 minutes, before he was summoned from his death cell to the execution chamber, which I want to remember always. It’s unfortunate that Darrell’s expectation of my being with him in the execution chamber was not honored. I wrote a complaint to Chief Deputy Commissioner Vernon Barnett of the Alabama Department of Corrections stating that denying his request was a “cruel and unnecessary response to a man about to die.” I went on to say that some accommodation should have been made to escort me, at least, to the witness area adjoining the execution chamber where he would have observed my presence. I know that would have been some consolation to Darrell and it would have satisfied me. At least he could observe Esther’s presence there.
I am honored to be the spiritual advisor to the Board of Project Hope in Holman Prison. Darrell asked me, while in his cell those last minutes, to continue on in that capacity and to be a special support to his friend Jeff Rieber who has succeeded him as chairman. The unique in-house organization stands as a bright memorial to Darrell Grayson and a reminder to me of the barbaric nature of the penal system intent on maintaining a revengeful posture towards those, innocent or not, incarcerated on death row in too many of our state prisons. Being a priest of a church opposing the death penalty as a right to life issue, I am proud of the institution which has publicly stipulated through its teachers, the U.S. bishops, that every convicted death row inmate still has a right to life similar to the human fetus and that we Christians have the honorable vocation to defend that adult human life from abortion in a prison death chamber. If we can take that vocation seriously enough, I know that fetal abortions would diminish as would the penchant for war – and the violence, which haunts our neighborhoods and streets.
I left Alabama the day after the state killed Darrell Grayson. The shock of that experience has evolved into grief. I want his hope for a less violent world to inspire others and me to live more simply while nonviolently opposing violence. We still have the memory of his example and his poetry teaching us. The words of another Alabama poet reached me as an email soon after my return to Florida. They continue to console me.
July 26, 2007
I cut the grass while the State of Alabama murdered Darrell Grayson
My lawn mower is louder than my cries
The wind dried my tears as I cut.
The flowering bushes bowed their respect
For the man who lived most of his life on Death Row
The man who wrote poetry and mentored other tortured souls.
I cut grass and thought of Esther Brown, my friend
And best friend to Darrell
She never stopped trying to save his life.
Never gave in to the challenges of age and pain.
The grass cut, I came inside to look up the word “murder” in the dictionary
It says murder is an unlawful killing.
Thou Shalt Not Kill, says the Ten Commandments
But we did it anyway, and still we claim to be people of faith.
I thought about the victim of the crime they say Darrell committed.
I prayed for her family and their pain.
I prayed for the people of Alabama and for our misguided cruelty.
Where do we go from here?
What do we do now?
When will we ever learn?
People see me cutting the grass. “She keeps her grass cut”, they say with respect.
They can’t see the tears from the road.
Tears for those on Death Row. Tears for those of us who won’t take a stand.
Tears for the churches which won’t get involved.
Tears for our children who don’t understand that killing people is wrong,
Even when it is done in the name of the State.
My prayer is that Darrell’s execution moves Alabama
To stop the killing.
Let his murder, in our name, be the last.
Let us rise up with the new knowledge that killing is wrong,
Whether it is murder, execution or war.
Let it move us to act, using Jesus’ example.
Let me let my grass grow long and tall.
– Barbara Evans