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Back To Death Row

Witness to an Execution

The spiritual advisor to a condemned prisoner writes about how an execution
reveals the lies that underscore capital punishment.


I spent much of last week at the Indiana State Prison where I served for 4 years as a volunteer chaplain. I returned there at the request of Jerry Bivins, a man on death row whom I came to know well. Jerry was executed shortly after midnight on Wednesday, March 14th. He asked me to serve as his spiritual advisor and to witness his execution.

The events of his last days underscore for me, the devastation that this penalty inflicts, upon all involved-- victim's families, prisoner families, other prisoners, attorneys, friends, and corrections officials. No one was left untouched by the inhumanity that was done in Indiana last week, whether they want to admit it or not.

Jerry's execution also underscores for me the raw dishonesty with which the state talks about the death penalty. Jerry Bivins' execution helped no one, served no purpose, except to provide a target for our own projected hatred and vengeance. Those politicians, prosecutors, presidents, and citizens who speak of the death penalty with words like deterrence or retribution or public safety or justice are lying. And that lie needs to called what it is.

It is not merely a difference of opinion, another view, a varied perspective. To suggest that the death penalty does anything more than brutalize all involved is to tell a fatal lie, a lie that will cost lives as long as it is believed.

A friend of mine, who knows the corrections system in Indiana well, wondered to me recently about how we speak against the death penalty while trying not to offend anyone. For me, that veneer of manners needs to end. The death penalty itself offends every sensible person. To suggest otherwise is to collaborate in a false civility that degrades us all.

I arrived at the prison on Monday morning, March 12th. My plan was to spend as much of the day as possible with Jerry, his family, his friends, as the execution was scheduled for the next night. Along with Fr. Paul LeBrun, the catholic chaplain at the prison, I went to the death row unit where Jerry and I had our first brief visit. It had been about 10 months since I had seen Jerry. Let me say some things about my friendship with him. Jerry Bivins was sentenced to death in 1992. He came to death row after being convicted of murdering Rev. William Radcliffe at a roadside rest stop washroom in Lebanon, Indiana. Jerry was born and raised in Evansville. For most of his teens and twenties he was addicted to alcohol and various drugs. It was while drunk and strung out that he and two other men sought to rob the man who came into this rest stop washroom. When Jerry realized the man coordinated a substance abuse clinic Jerry had once been part of, in a stoned frenzy he shot him.

After being convicted and sentenced to death, Jerry came to death row where he learned to sharpened his writing skills. He began to develop both his intellectual life and his spiritual life. These were, by his own admission, the first adult years he spent mostly sober.

With a man in Florida name Hugo Boniche, Jerry co-founded a publication called "The Death Row Forum." This magazine style publication sought to publish the writings of men and women on death row. The "Forum" ran for about 4 years. At its peak it had a subscription list of about 100 readers. Jerry also began to grow spiritually. He had been baptized in a pentecostal church as a child but virtually never practiced any faith. When I came to the prison in 1996, we began to talk often about faith. Jerry had a hungry mind and heart. He was eager for answers to ultimate questions. Those questions culminated in his being received into the Catholic church and confirmed as an adult catholic in 1999.

Those of you who have been reading Prison Reflections in the past will recall the description of his confirmation in the death row visiting room. It was a moving and prayerful experience. Sr. Gerald Ann, a Holy Cross nun he was writing to, Karen Luderer, his friend from Pennsylvania, Fr. Joe Lanzalaco, at the time the other prison chaplain, were all present. Jerry was a man of wild humor. You might remember it being described here before, that often when I would enter his section of the death row building, he would shout jokingly to the others: "Brother Joseph on the set, make like you're asleep!" Then he'd sit back and laugh, waiting for me to walk up to his cell scowling.

I arrived at his cell shortly after 9am on Monday morning and we hugged with the black, steel bars between us. Immediately he pulled a chair over to the bars, I pulled a milk crate over and we sat down in the same way we had hundreds of times. The first thing he said to me was: "You going to be ok with this? You going to make it through this?" I told him I would. We talked for about 15 mintues. I told him I would do whatever he needed me to do. "Keep me grounded," he said. He had several visits scheduled for the day so he said he wanted me to sit with him between visits and to help him prepare his family for the execution.

We read from Luke's Gospel, the story of the man on the cross, executed next to Jesus. We would end up reading this pass age many times in the next 2 days. For the rest of that day, Jerry visited with his brother, sister-in-law, mother, and other friends. I would sit with him in between visits. Plus, I would come into the death row visiting room sometimes, toward the end of visits, as they became very emotional. I would often just put my hand on Jerry's back, as he hugged this friend to whom he was saying goodbye.

That evening, his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and a friend of his mother's, cooked his official last meal and they brought it to the death row visiting room. This was one of those beautiful yet surreal moments in prison. Fr. Paul, Jerry's mother, brother, sister-in-law, and I sat in the death row visiting room, a giant cage really, and ate a wonderful meal of chicken and dumplings, German ravioli, and vending machine sodas. We laughed, cried, told stories, laughed some more, and complimented Jerry's mother on the dinner. Jerry described it "without a doubt, the best meal he'd had in 10 years." At the end of the meal, Jerry's brother got up, went around to where Jerry sat, got Jerry up, and they just held each other and cried. Jerry's mother did the same and the goobyes were long and tough. We all agreed to meet the next morning at 9am.

After Jerry went back to his cell, I went to visit his 3 close friends on the Row: Mike, Chuck, and Gamba. I relayed to them the message Jerry asked me to relay to them, as he would not see them again. I told them each that Jerry said he loved them, held them in his heart, and then he had a special message for each of them. For Mike it was: "Take care of your son." For Gamba it was: "Keep reading and praying." For Chuck it was: "Stay out of trouble." These men received these messages each in his own way. But Chuck especially took it hard. I had never seen Chuck show a lot of emotion before, except for anger. He's a pretty tough guy. His eyes filled with tears and he leaned toward me against the bars and sobbed. I just tried to hold him through the bars, as well as I could.

Grief is an odd thing on death row. When someone is executed, others go through a mix of things: sadness on losing someone they may love, fear from wondering when the state will do this to them, and anger that the one dying is likely, perfectly healthy. This grief is like no other I have known.

The next morning I met Fr. Paul again and we met Jerry's brother as he arrived at the prison alone. He looked a little agitated so I asked him where his mother was. He told me that she had an accidental overdose of pills the night before and was in St. Anthony's Hospital. He said she would be alright but that he would tell Jerry that she had fallen. This would likely mean of course, that she would not see Jerry alive again. We went into the prison and Rick went to the death row visiting room. I went into the death row unit to see Jerry. He was getting ready to go out to see his brother. We prayed once again. Jerry said real goodbyes on this day. He said goodbye to his brother, sister-in-law, and 2 friends, Dan and Karen, who had been faithful friends to Jerry for most of his years in prison. Again, I spent the day in and out of the visiting room as their goodbyes took place. All gut-wrenching and sad. Sometimes I would sit with Jerry after the friend had left. Other times he asked me to walk them out and sit with them out front for a while.

Once while he was visiting with someone, I was in the death row unit visiting some of the other men and a prison administrator called me down to the guard's station. He told me that had the prison learned of a mother's suicide> attempt regarding any other inmate, they would have to tell that inmate. I told him that it would be best for Jerry's brother to tell him, though I knew he didn't want to. The administrator said that would take too long as he couldn't call his brother until later in the evening from the holding cell. > When I said I was hesitant to tell Jerry, he said he would have to order the prison's official chaplain to come to Jerry's cell to tell him. Knowing that Jerry did not get along with this chaplain, and that I had never in 4 years seen that chaplain on death row, Fr. Paul and I decided it best if we told Jerry.

He came back from his visit and we sat outside his cell and told him that it seemed his mother had taken 50 Xanex pills, but that she would be alright. Jerry was not agitated, just frustrated that his brother did not tell him the whole story. I should add that this is a common dilemma for prisoners' families. Not wanting to worry their prison-relative, often families don't tell a prisoner the complete truth about a loved one. Jerry was frustrated, but understood why his brother did this and he knew he'd have a chance to heal this with his brother later on the phone. Jerry was just worried about his mother. And he felt utterly responsible for her suffering.

As a side note, the official Department of Corrections spokeswoman told the press that Jerry was "angry" at his brother. This was not true. Even if it were true, the fact that she announced that to the press, knowing full well that Jerry's family would see this comment, was to my mind, unprofessional and inappropriate. However, it was untrue. He said to me that he was frustrated. Never did he show anger at his brother. Thankfully, I was able to clear this up with his brother, but 2 days after Jerry's execution.

Around 4pm Jerry had a last visit with his lawyer and he returned to the death row unit. The protocol takes over from here. Jerry was given time to take a shower and a clean set of clothes. He was able to walk the range and say goodbye to a few other prisoners, though his close friends do not live in that range. I was not allowed to walk with him from the death row unit to the death house, so Fr. Paul and I had to go wait in the chapel until Jerry was secured in the holding cell, next to the lethal injection room. Fr. Paul and I sat in the chapel until called over to the death house.

We entered this old, brick building across the prison's "Main Street" from the chapel. We entered a long hallway, through a door of bars, down another long room, at the end of which is the window through which the witnesses watch the execution. We were taken right into the lethal injection room, though the gurney was surrounded by a curtain, and into the holding cell's room. This room is roughly 10 by 10, with a cell built into one wall. Jerry was sitting on a mattress inside the cell and outside the bars was a line on the floor, about 2 feet from the bars. There were 2 guards at a table with a phone. They announced that I could not cross the line and not touch him. I told the guards that was not acceptable. That in fact, just the day before I had spoken with the warden who assured me there was no line (I had the same battle the last time I served as a spiritual advisor) and that Jerry and I could touch. The officers said these were their orders. I told them to call the warden immediately. Jerry, enjoying the fact that it took less than a minute for me to have a conflict with the guards, just sat on the mattress and smiled. I pulled a chair up right to the edge of the line and waited for them to call the warden. Jerry and I talked for a few minutes and when the guards got off the phone they said I was free to ignore the line and to touch the prisoner.

It was now about 5pm and we would be there until roughly 10:45pm. We agreed that he would make some phone calls and that we would talk between them. We also agreed that we would give him communion and pray around 8:30pm and then anoint him and pray before Fr. Paul and I had to leave, around 10:30pm. Jerry was very relaxed. He drank some pepsi, was allowed to smoke Camel Filters, called some friends, including his brother. When he was not on the phone,I would pull my chair right up to the bars and we would talk. He, Fr. Paul, and I had some laughs, tears, handled some details of his last possessions. Jerry and I had a little ritual. He would say goodbye to whichever friend he was phoning, and this truly was goodbye. Then I would hang the phone up for him. I'd ask: "How is Karen?" He'd say: "She's tore up." I'd then say: "How's Jerry?" He'd respond: "He's ok."

Jerry had a deep sense of God's forgiveness. He knew he had expressed sorrow for all his sins. He knew he had spoken his apology to the Radcliffe family and that there was nothing more for him to do except to trust in God's mercy. He said to me that one thing he loved about the catholic tradition was that you could always count on Mary to help you get saved. Jerry referred to Mary as"the back door." He would say: "If you can't get in the front door, you go to Mary at the back door. She'll get you in."

Jerry had a beautiful conversation with his niece, who had just given birth to a child in Evansville. She was in her hospital bed and he was in the death house's holding cell. She was nursing her newborn child. He awaited execution. The contrast was clear to all of us. He urged her to take care of her children. She apologized for not being there with him. He reminded her that she was in the right place. They both laughed and cried.

Around 8:30pm Fr. Paul gave Jerry his last communion, also called Viaticum. Fr. Paul spoke of this last communion as "food for the journey." He reminded Jerry of the many times Jerry had received communion on the Row. He told him that this time would be the last and that soon he would be in the Father's embrace. One awkward, but beautiful moment took place here. Fr. Paul told Jerry that with the Viaticum, came an apostolic pardon. Jerry asked what that was. Fr. Paul explained that this was a special forgiveness from the Pope for one's sins. Jerry, confident in God's forgiveness said rather quickly: "I don't need that. I have all I need." I was gratified in Jerry's quick response in that it seemed to show that he, in fact knew, deep down, that God had forgiven him. That there was nothing else needed.

Jerry made a few more phone calls as the night wore on. One last call was to his brother, against whom he had no frustration. They had already spoken once that night and he said they had soothed any remaining differences. No prolems. More tears. More joking. At one point, I was sitting up against the bars and he, sensing that things were getting too serious told me he had a lump on his jaw and would I feel it? I reached in the bars and he quickly acted as if he were going to bite my hand. Startled, I pulled my hand out quickly and he laughed and laughed. With Jerry, there was never a moment too serious for a joke.

Before our last prayer, I reminded Jerry about his last statement. We had talked about this earlier and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. I suggested that he write it down and give it to me so it would reachout side exactly as he wanted it. I handed him a pen and paper and he wrote down these words, which he had carefully memorized:

"Last Statement. I know that I have hurt a lot of people in my life, especially my family and the Radcliffe family. I am sorry for the pain and sorrow I have caused Karen and Matthew Radcliffe, my friends and family. I ask that they forgive me. And to those here at the prison, I say 'Father forgive them, for the know not what they do to me.'"

He asked me if I thought that was alright. I told him it was beautiful. That it was exactly the right thing to say. He was very pleased. I told him also, as I did many times, that while asking for forgiveness was the right thing to do, the crime that landed him on death row was not the entirety of his life. I said, "Jerry Bivins is a lot more than that one act." I reminded him that he was deeply loved by his family and friends. I said "You're funny and thoughtful and caring and gentle." He just smiled. "Yeah."

Around 10:30pm we gathered again to pray. We read the prayers of blessing for a victim of oppression. We prayed Psalm 145, read of Jesus on the cross in Luke's Gospel. We heard the man on the cross next to Jesus ask Jesus to "remember him." Jesus responds: "Today you will be with me in paradise." We said to Jerry emphatically, that tonight those words are addressed to him. That God's love for him is so great, so willing, so ready, that this very day, he will be with God in paradise. We all sensed that goodbye was coming.

We took the Sacred Chrism, and explaining that it was used for the strengthening of kings, prophets and priests, I generously anointed Jerry's forehead and hands. "You are ready. This very day you will be with me in paradise."

Shortly thereafter, another guard came into the room and told Fr. Paul and I that it was time for us to leave. This was around 10:40pm. This gives the prison officials the opportunity to put Jerry on the gurney and to keep the execution team's identity confidential. I went up to the bars, Jerry stood up, he thanked me, told me he loved me. I told him I also loved him. That if he needed to see someone who loved him during the execution that he should look at me. That he should keep the words: "Jesus remember me" on his lips. I also told him that I was honored to know him and to walk with him. He just nodded his head and cried. Finally I asked him: "Tell God we all did our best." He smiled and said to me: "He knows you did." Fr. Paul and I turned and walked out. I looked back only to see Jerry re-tracing the cross of oil on his forehead. We walked out and the guards locked the doors behind us.

Fr. Paul and I were taken out into the cool night to join the other witnesses. We had to stop on the way to the front of the prison. The prison in the middle of the night was so quiet, so still. Paul and I both just stood there on that prison sidewalk, our hearts breaking. We finally joined the other witnesses, who included Jerry's brother and Bishop Dale Melczek, the catholic bishop of the Diocese of Gary, in which the prison sits. Eventually, we were all taken to the chapel where we waited some more. We spoke about setting up Jerry's funeral in Evansville. I told Jerry's friends and brother that he was in good shape, had prayed, was strong and ready.

At around 12:20am a guard entered the chapel and told us to come with him. We were taken back to the death house, passed several barred doors to the room where 3 rows of chairs were set up in front of a window that looked into the death chamber. The window blinds were drawn. We sat there for a few minutes surrounded by several guards until the blinds snapped open. Jerry was lying on the gurney with an I.V. inserted into his left arm, which was hanging off the side of the gurney. His glasses remained on. He looked toward us and smiled. His arms were strapped to the gurney but he still managed a small wave of his left hand, from which still hung a handcuff. He continue looking at us.

It was difficult to tell when the actual injections began. Jerry's head remained looking through the window at us. After a couple of minutes of stillness, Jerry coughed hard and seemed to be choking. Some of the witnesses gasped and Jerry convulsed and gagged and strained against the straps. Finally he stopped and was still. His head was straight and his mouth wide open. I continued to pray, others were sobbing, after about 8-9 minutes of the blinds being opened, they again snapped shut. A guard told us to stand. Bishop Melczek stood and made the sign of the Cross toward the window. Except for sobs, we were silent. We were escorted out of the building into a van.

The van drove us out of a prison side gate, past a hearse. They dropped us off in the prison parking lot. There was a small gathering of vigilers and news people under the glare of television camera lights at the front of the prison. I said goodbye to Jerry's brother, told him I would call him the next day. I hugged Fr. Paul and thanked him for all he had done. I told Bishop Melczek that I intended to speak to the press and I asked him if he would join me. He did.

We walked toward the gathering and the Department of Corrections spokeswoman had just finished her statement. Bishop Melczek and stepped right in front of the cameras. I told them I was Joseph Ross, one of Jerry Bivins' spiritual advisors. I introduced Bishop Melczek. I read Jerry's last statement and added that he went to his death with courage and honesty and humor. I added that his crime was not the total of his life, but that he was loved as a son and brother and friend. And that many of us would miss him. The reporters asked a couple of questions which I cannot recall. Bishop Melczek then spoke very eloquently about Jerry and his faith. The bishop thanked all those who work against the death penalty and said we had to step up our efforts so that this would not happen again. Bishop Melczek reminded those present that Jerry was a good man, was a brother to us all, and that we should all pray for him and work to end this penalty. From there, the crowd dispersed in silence. It was around 1:15am.

Let us increase every effort to end this penalty in this country. Let us hold in prayer all victims of violence, all prisoners, their families and friends. Let us especially remember Jerry Bivins, his mother, his brother and sister-in-law, his friends in prison, his niece, and the many people who love him and miss him.

This article first appeared in Prison Reflections.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed an
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