Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book Dead Man Walking -- a moment not shown in the film -- is Lloyd LeBlanc's recollection of the day he identified the murdered body of his son. The author, Sr. Helen Prejean, recounts:
[When] he arrived with the sheriff's deputies there in the cane field to identify his son, he knelt by his boy - "laying down there with his two little eyes sticking out like bullets" - and prayed the Our Father. And when he came to the words: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," he had not halted or equivocated, and he said, "Whoever did this, I forgive them."The book — which is the basis for a film, a play and, most recently an opera — is largely an account of Sr. Prejean's ministry to death row prisoners. LeBlanc's story is not a prominent one in Dead Man Walking but it may be the most riveting one.
While his initial response to the brutal murder of his son, and the rape and murder of his son's girlfriend, was forgiveness, he faced an ongoing struggle to live that forgiveness. He rose to speak at the murderer's clemency hearing to urge that a death sentence be carried out. But shortly thereafter he went to confession. Though he tried to avoid doing so, he attended the execution. There his son's killer, Patrick Sonnier, apologized to him and asked for his forgiveness. LeBlanc nodded in assent. Years after the execution, LeBlanc is providing financial support to Sr. Prejean's ministry to death row prisoners, whom he calls 'God's children.' He attends Eucharistic adoration weekly, and he is praying for the Sonnier family. He comforted Patrick Sonnier's mother on her death bed.
The stories of the loved ones of murder victims are too often untold. The stories of family members of victims who advocate against the death penalty are rarer still. Two of these inspiring stories follow.
A Father's Story
Julie Welch, a recent Marquette University graduate gifted in foreign languages served as a translator for the Social Security Administration at the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995 she attended morning Mass before heading for work. At 9:02 AM, she greeted her first clients. Then a bomb reduced the building to rubble. She, along with 167 others, was killed that day.
After Julie's death, her father Bud Welch, turned to drinking and smoking to ease the pain of her loss. Every day, Mr. Welch paced the chain-linked fence that ran along the perimeter of the bombing site.
Mr. Welch had always opposed the death penalty but he noted acquaintances would say, "if it ever happens to you, you will change your mind." When it happened to him, he did change his mind. He recalls, "the first month or so after the bombing, after Terry Nichols and Tim McVeigh were arrested and charged, I didn't even want trials for either of them, I wanted them fried."
And then one morning he was standing under an elm tree at the site of the destruction, watching mourners walk along the fence. His head was hurting from drinking the night before, but he began probing his mind with three questions: "Do you need trials to begin now? Do you need convictions? Do you need executions?"
Reflecting on this last question, he remembered a conversation he had with Julie during a road-trip home from Marquette. A news report on the radio announced that the state of Texas had carried out an execution the previous night. Julie had turned to her father and said, "Dad, that makes me sick what they are doing down in Texas. All they are doing is teaching hate to their children and it has no social redeeming value." Recalling this statement, Mr. Welch was immediately struck, realizing that it would be wrong to execute Nichols and McVeigh. He said, "the day that we might kill either one of them would be a day of vengeance and rage, and vengeance and rage is exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead." In his mind, then, the question was answered. No, he did not want executions.
Shortly thereafter Mr. Welch stopped drinking. He became an eloquent spokesman against the death penalty. Through his speaking engagements, he derives great comfort in sharing stories about Julie's life, her compassion, her contributions.
One speaking engagement brought him to Buffalo, New York, near the area where Timothy McVeigh grew up and where his father and sister still lived. Mr. Welch recalled one evening, watching the news, and a reporter attempted to interview Mr. McVeigh. Mr. McVeigh avoided the reporter's questions and only once looked at the camera. Mr. Welch saw an undeniable grief in Mr. McVeigh's eyes. He recognized that grief because he was living it. At that moment Mr. Welch knew he wanted to meet Mr. McVeigh.
The meeting between Mr. Welch and Mr. McVeigh was awkward. But they found common ground as Catholics of Irish descent. The two talked in the McVeigh kitchen. Jennifer McVeigh, Timothy McVeigh's sister, joined them. Mr. Welch caught himself glancing very self-consciously, above the table at an 8"x10" high school photo of Timothy McVeigh. Finally he said, "God, what a good-looking kid." A tear rolled down Mr. McVeigh's face.
At the end of the meeting Mr. Welch offered his hand to Mr. McVeigh and to Jennifer. Jennifer hugged him and began sobbing. Mr. Welch looked at her and said, "Honey, look, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. We can make the most of it if we choose. I don't want your brother to die and I will do everything I can to prevent it."
Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001. Mr. Welch condemned the execution. Today, he regularly keeps in touch with Mr. McVeigh.
A Mother's Story
Brian Muha had just completed his freshman year at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He was bright, athletic, and faithful - an all-American kid. At the end of the semester he returned home, but the stay was brief because he planned to attend summer classes at Franciscan. Before returning to school, he arranged to send roses to his mother. Mrs. Muha received them the day after he left and called to thank him. He wasn't home. Later that afternoon, the police informed the Muha family that Brian and his friend Aaron were missing. A search team began looking for the boys. After nearly a week, the bloodied bodies of Brian and Aaron were found ' on a hill under a canopy of wild roses. Three suspects were arrested.
During that week when Brian's status went from 'missing' to murdered, Mrs. Muha relied on prayer. Her prayer was the Lord's Prayer. And she prayed it deliberately, reflectively, asking herself, challenging herself, "Can I pray this? What is this forgiveness that God wants?"
She forgave his killers. Even after she learned that the three men decided to murder her son for the 'thrill' of it and later bragged about it. Even after she learned that Brian was kidnapped, beaten with a gun, and forced to march up a hill to his death. Even after she learned that he was tormented and killed 'execution-style.' Even after she had to relive those horrific details while attending two trials. And even though the murderers were and remain unrepentant.
"To forgive someone," she says, "does not mean to excuse them. It doesn't mean that you are saying that what they did is okay. ... It doesn't mean that you understand, or that they had good reason for their actions. It doesn't mean you are saying they shouldn't be punished. It means giving up anger, hatred, revenge, and bitterness towards someone who has hurt you. It means to have good will, to want what is best for that person and to help them get it. What is ultimately best for everyone is Heaven. Do what you can for those who have hurt you so that they can get to Heaven."
Mrs. Muha prays unceasingly for the conversion of her son's killers. She calls them her brothers. "They are my brothers and yours," she says, "because we are all children of the same Heavenly Father."
Mrs. Muha has gone further than praying for these men. She has advocated for them. She specifically requested that they not be executed although one was sentenced to death. And she speaks against the death penalty: "There is only one reason not to use the death penalty and I think that reason will prevail in the end. The reason is that each one of us was created. That means we belong to Someone - with a capital S - and that Someone has rights over our lives."
Mrs. Muha emphasizes that by rejecting the death penalty, she does not reject justice or punishment. Rather, by rejecting the death penalty, she embraces life. "We need to be radical witnesses for life," she says, "including very guilty life so that we can turn the tide toward a culture of life."
And she has provided just that sort of radical witness, honoring life, not with a call for vengeance, but with charitable deeds and hope. Mrs. Muha founded a scholarship in Brian's memory. The funds are available to inner-city youth from Pittsburgh, Steubenville and Columbus (Ohio), because Brian was from Columbus and the men who killed him are from Pittsburgh and Steubenville. She has also established a foundation to help fund various projects for inner-city youth. She purchased the home from which Brian and Aaron were kidnapped and converted it into an apartment for clergy and religious who cannot afford housing while studying at Franciscan. She asks those who stay there to pray for the men who killed Brian and Aaron.
A Brother's Response
Mrs. Muha's son Chris also embraced forgiveness for his brother's murderers. At the sentencing phase of the trial, Chris offered his forgiveness to the murderers in these poignant, faith-filled words: "I offer my forgiveness to you. I forgive you, not because you had a rough childhood, for that is not an excuse. I forgive you, not because you were depressed, because that is not an excuse. I forgive you because I have been forgiven. And I want so much to believe that you are truly sorry for what you have done."
The Church and the Death Penalty
Mrs. Muha's faith gave her the strength to forgive. Her reflection on the teachings of the Church, especially as articulated by Pope John Paul II, compels her to oppose the death penalty.
The Church's teaching on the death penalty has been subject to misunderstanding since the 1995 publication of Pope John Paul II's encyclical The Gospel of Life and the subsequent revisions to the Catechism made in light of this encyclical. In the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II explains:
It is clear that ... the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (No. 56).The Catechism now reflects this teaching (No. 2267).
The Church has deepened her understanding of the teaching on the death penalty, to make clear that the only morally appropriate use of the death penalty is defensive use. And she has taken account of the fact that such defense of the innocent can be in most all circumstances achieved today in ways that involve no taking of human life.
Today, the Holy See seeks worldwide abolition of the death penalty. The Holy Father himself has intervened in several American cases to ask for clemency. And the bishops, as a conference and individually, have been active and vigorous in calling for abolition of the death penalty.
It is too easy to present the question of capital punishment in the form of "us vs. them," as a conflict between innocent victims of murder and their attackers. At times the most eloquent and sincere opponents of the death penalty are those who have suffered the most at the hands of violent criminals. They urge us to look beyond the instinct for vengeance, to the infinitely loving God whose children we all are. In the end, the defining issue is not how wicked the criminal's actions are, but how we should respond if we are to become a society that more fully reveres and respects human life.
Maureen Kramlich, Esq. is public policy analyst for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Encourage parishioners, friends and neighbors to sign a 'Declaration of Life.' Produced by Pax Christi USA, the Declaration states that if the signatory dies as a result of a violent crime, the death penalty not be sought against their attackers. For more information, see www.paxchristiusa.org.
Organize a ministry to parishioners who are victims of violence. For victims who must be part of a trial, the ministry could provide support by accompanying them to court, babysitting for their children, and making home-cooked meals. At other times, the ministry could write letters or send cards to family members and close friends on the birthday and the anniversary of a loved one's violent death, as well as on All Souls Day.
Remember victims in liturgy. Pray for victims of violence and their families during the Prayers of Faithful. Hold a liturgy to remember victims of violence. Provide space in the parish for a memorial and a kneeler for prayer. This space might include candles, a memorial book and small photos of loved ones. This event might be held during National Victims Week in April.
The Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II, 1995. Washington, D.C.: USCCB. (English and Spanish, $9.95).
A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty. NCCB. Washington, D.C.: USCCB (English and Spanish, 25/$10).
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. NCCB, 2000. Washington, D.C.: USCCB (English and Spanish, $5.95).
Statement on Capital Punishment. United States Catholic Conference, 1980. Washington, D.C.: USCCB ($2.50).
Additional Print Resources
Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994. Herbert H. Haines. Cary, N.C.: Oxford University Press, 1996 ($19.95).
Against the Death Penalty: Christian and Secular Arguments Against the Death Penalty. Mark Constanzo. Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1997 ($14.99).
CACP News Notes. Bimonthly newsletter. Catholics Against Capital Punishment. Arlington, Va. (free).
Catholics and Capital Punishment: The Morality of Capital Punishment According to Church Teaching. Augustine Judd, O.P. New Haven, Conn.: Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Service, 1998.
Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History. Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris (eds). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997 ($49.95).
Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty. Antoinette Bosco. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001 ($17).
Dead Men Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Sr. Helen Prejean. New York: Random House, 1993 ($13).
The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey. James J. Megivern. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1997 ($29.95).
The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies. Hugo Adam Bedau, (ed). New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 ($21.50).
The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture. Austin Sarat (ed). Port Chester, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1998 ($39.95).
Talking About the Death Penalty. 10-min. video. Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Family Life Office, 1999 ($5).
Catholics Against Capital Punishment
Death Penalty Information Center
Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation