From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Grace encountered during visit to death row

Date Tue, 13 May 2003 15:44:58 -0400

May 13, 2003


Episcopalians: Grace encountered during visit to death row

by David Skidmore

(ENS) It could be a hospital emergency room. Bright recessed 
flood lamps, stainless steel stands for hanging IV bags and 
tubes, a portable stand and tray for other medical tools, a 
privacy curtain and, bathed in the yellow-green light--an empty 
hospital gurney. 

But no lives have been saved here. This is a killing room.

Its most recent occupant -- Kevin Lee Hough -- was admitted May 
1 around the dinner hour, and, with a physician and prison 
chaplain present, strapped to the gurney and attached to an IV 
feed line. Shortly after midnight May 2, after Indiana State 
Prison officials confirmed that the U.S. Supreme Court had 
denied his final appeal, Houck received a saline solution 
through the IV tube. A minute later, after the reading of the 
execution order, the first of five syringes containing sodium 
pentothal--an anesthetic--was injected into the IV line. As 
eight witnesses watched, among them Houck's mother and daughter, 
four more doses were administered, the final being the 
heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. 

At 12:25 a.m. the physician confirmed his heart had stopped and 
brain function had ceased. The 43-year-old was the 849th person 
put to death in U.S. prisons since the Supreme Court reinstated 
the death penalty in 1976, and Indiana's 81st execution since 
Harry Jones was killed by hanging in 1897. 

But not the last. On June 13, Joseph Trueblood of Lafayette, 
Indiana, has a date with the gurney.

Profound irony

In the room where witnesses watched Houck's final moments, the 
Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, viewed the 
empty death chamber apparatus, the final stop of a half-day tour 
of death row facilities in Michigan City, Indiana, April 2. In 
his first visit to a death chamber, and in fact to a state 
prison, the presiding bishop said he was moved by the "profound 
irony" of seeing life-saving equipment being used as the 
instruments of an execution. 

"It struck me looking through the window at a hospital gurney 
how an execution now parodies hospital procedures. Intravenous 
tubes and all the rest of it are an effort to help heal someone, 
when what is really happening there is just the opposite," he 

Earlier in the tour Griswold spoke with three death row inmates 
temporarily housed at the Maximum Control Facility in nearby 
Westville. His conversations -- conducted by phone in a booth 
divided by bulletproof glass -- confirmed for him how much 
capital punishment is at odds with his understanding of the 
gospel.  In each of those short exchanges he said he was struck 
by the "deep sense of prayer" emanating from the three men, how 
each considered himself "all right with God, acknowledging that 
God is in charge," and holding "a deep sense of being forgiven 
by God."

In his conversation with Keith Canaan, a 44-year-old inmate on 
death row since December 1986, and later talking with death row 
guards, Griswold said he learned that popular perceptions of 
those condemned to die can be misleading. They are not all 
hardened and defiant towards the society that enables their 
death.	"He [Canaan] said, You know we change here. We are not 
the same people we were when we came here,'" recalled Griswold. 
Unfortunately for Canaan and the other 38 residents of Indiana's 
death row, there is no way for the justice system to acknowledge 
or accommodate that change of mind and spirit, said Griswold. 

Grace operates on death row

The personal encounters with inmates also reinforced the views 
of other members of Griswold's party on the death row visit: 
Bishop George Packard, bishop suffragan for the Episcopal 
Church's chaplains in the armed services, healthcare services 
and prison ministry; Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana; 
Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis; Barbara Braver, 
communications assistant for the presiding bishop; and the Rev. 
Jacqueline Means, director of prison ministries for the 
Episcopal Church.

Waynick said that her opposition to the death penalty has 
deepened as a result of meeting the men living under its cloud. 
"These are human beings who in extraordinarily difficult 
circumstances manage to make the very best of it for 
themselves," she said. "There is really grace operative here. 
And my opinions and perceptions about whether the death penalty 
is a valuable part of our social structure have not changed. I 
think it is abhorrent."

In her testimony before the Indiana state senate committee 
looking into the death penalty, Waynick has focused on the moral 
arguments in Scripture, whereas other religious leaders have 
concentrated on sociological factors, such as apparent racial 
bias in death sentences and the higher cost of running death row 
as opposed to lifetime incarceration. Scripture permits capital 
punishment, she said, but only under strict guidelines requiring 
the eyewitness testimony of two persons, and that the execution 
be carried out by those bringing the charges. "We don't have any 
of those provisions in our statutes about the death penalty," 
she said, "and I think we need to play that up more. We need to 
be honest about that."

Church members favor death penalty

There is little ambiguity on the issue for Means. "I am 
completely against it," she said. "When we kill somebody legally 
what we are saying is that God cannot change a person's life. 
And I don't believe in that. God can do what God wants to do. 
And even the worst person in the world doesn't deserve to be 

Means, who organized the visit to the Michigan City prisons, 
acknowledged that her view is not shared by the majority of 
Episcopalians, who see inmates on a different plane than other 
social service recipients. She estimates that up to 70 percent 
of the people sitting in church pews on Sunday support capital 
punishment. The prevailing view for them, she said, appears to 
be that taking a life should be paid through the forfeiture of 
life. Even in the church she serves as vicar in West Terre 
Haute, Indiana, the sentiment runs in favor of the death 

Despite reluctance in the pews, the Episcopal Church has long 
been on record as opposed to capital punishment. Beginning in 
1958, and reaffirmed several times since, the church's General 
Convention has adopted resolutions calling for the abolition of 
the death penalty. The most recent statements have been made in 
an Executive Council resolution in June 2001 calling for an 
immediate moratorium and eventual abolition of capital 
punishment in all state and federal prisons, and in a letter 
last January from the presiding bishop to Illinois' former 
Governor George Ryan, who made headlines last year for placing a 
moratorium on all executions in the state and commuting over 100 
death sentences in the final weeks of his term.

"It is my hope that, with your bold action as witness and 
example, each state and this country as a whole will reconsider 
the use of the death penalty and cease this practice," wrote 

Education could make the difference

Resolutions alone are not enough to make capital punishment, and 
prison ministry itself, a concern of the average Episcopalian, 
maintained Means. Education is the key, and the most effective 
teacher is the presiding bishop, she said.

"People need to be educated. We need to talk about this instead 
of sweeping it under the rug," said Means. With the presiding 
bishop's statement and now his visit to a death row, "it is 
going to bring it out from under the rug now, and we are going 
to have to start talking about some things," she said.

The presiding bishop's visit is a powerful catalyst, agreed 
Bishop Little, but high profile events and pronouncements must 
be followed up with local engagement. One approach is for 
parishes to explore the death penalty issue in adult forums and 
Bible study groups, allowing "the Scriptures to do the slow work 
of changing hearts," said Little.

It is telling, he noted, that the church has invested more 
effort in the theology of "just war" theory, dating back to St. 
Augustine, than in issues dealing with the life's beginning and 
end. "It is more sloganeering than anything else," he said of 
the resolutions and statements produced by the church around 
life issues.

In the case of the death penalty, which has been part of 
American culture since Plymouth Rock, "we have never approached 
that with the same theological seriousness with which we have 
approached war," said Little. "Maybe we need to do a parallel 
Christian reflection on the death penalty."

Starting points, he said, could be the House of Bishops Theology 
Committee, or even an Anglican Communion commission, much like 
the Eames Commission of the 1988 Lambeth Conference  which 
addressed a process of reception on women's ordination.

Given Christ's injunction in Matthew 25 -- "when was it we saw 
you sick and in prison and visited you?" -- it is hard to 
imagine people not engaging this issue and getting involved in 
prison ministry, he said.

Need for more prison chaplains

In some dioceses, the issue is taking hold. Means notes that all 
four Michigan dioceses have made prison ministry a priority. The 
Diocese of Northern Michigan operates a camp for kids whose 
parents are incarcerated at the state prison in Marquette, she 
said, and invites family members to stay in an apartment above 
the diocesan offices while visiting inmates in Marquette. In the 
state prison in Angola, Louisiana, the Diocese of Louisiana 
helps support the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal 
congregation operating within the prison. Similar prison 
churches have been started by Episcopalians in Pennsylvania and 

Another promising sign is a growing interest in chaplaincy work. 
Means is in conversation with Seabury-Western Theological 
Seminary in Evanston, Ilinois, on sponsoring a school for 
chaplains. The seminary, she noted, has a student outreach to 
St. Leonard's House, an Episcopal Charities agency on Chicago's 
West Side that operates a residential program for ex-offenders 
reentering society.

While the church has over 300 health services chaplains, it has 
few prison chaplains compared with other mainline denominations. 
Just three Episcopal chaplains serve in federal prisons, and 
around two dozen in state prisons.  One problem is the age 
requirement for chaplains serving in the federal bureau of 
prisons. They have to be under age 37 and have two years parish 
experience, said Means. Episcopalian candidates are few, given 
that the average age of our clergy is in the upper 40s, she 

"If I had ten Episcopal priests that had the experience and 
education," she said "they could probably go to work in the next 
60 days."

Restorative justice offers healing

Beyond the moral issue of legally sanctioning someone's death is 
a concept that has been incorporated into the General Convention 
theme this summer: restorative justice. Endorsed by the 2000 
General Convention, restorative justice as applied to prison 
ministry moves debate from fault-finding and retribution to 
truth-telling and reconciliation. 

Patterned after the process used so successfully by Archbishop 
Desmond Tutu and the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation 
Commission, restorative justice involves those most directly 
affected by a crime--the victim, the perpetrator, and the 
community--in deciding accountability and appropriate 
restitution. The key concepts it promotes are an understanding 
of crime as a violation of a person rather than primarily an 
infraction of a law or statute; an emphasis on the roles of 
community, victim and violator in determining the response to a 
crime; face-to-face dialogue of the primary stakeholders as 
opposed to adversarial court proceedings; and understanding an 
offender's accountability as involving restitution to the 
victim, participating in treatment for behavioral disorders, and 
community service.

Inspired by the biblical principle of Jubilee -- which links 
justice and economics through the call for freeing slaves, 
forgiveness of debt, and leaving the land fallow -- restorative 
justice does not mean the church or society excuses or overlooks 
the crime, but that all those affected are ministered to 
equally: the victims, the offender, and their respective 
families, said Griswold. 

"Clearly we are not called about being mediators of death to one 
another," he said. "We are called to be about transformation, 
restoration, healing."

If a restorative justice program could be implemented throughout 
the country, the prison population could be reduced by up to 40 
percent, said Means. The process used within the walls -- 
talking with inmates about their actions and how they can go 
about restoration -- would be equally effective as a prevention 
tool in their communities. "You take it into the community where 
it belongs, where the damage is done, and deal with it in the 
community," she said.

The church also needs to be involved in the political arena, she 
said, pushing for states to abolish the death penalty or at 
least enact reforms on eligibility for the death penalty. A 
moratorium would be "wonderful," said Means, but noted "there 
are not that many Governor Ryans in the world. The church needs 
to be advocating and being present for those who can't be 
present for themselves."


The Episcopal Church on capital punishment:

More about the death penalty: 

Death Penalty Information Center:

National Coalition Against the Death Penalty:

More about Indiana's Death Row:

More about Keith Canaan's case:

--David Skidmore is director of communication for the Episcopal 
Diocese of Chicago.

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