Dead Man Not Praying

The state wants to deny religious counsel immediately before executions. But why?

It's not a church, exactly, but it is certainly a congregation that meets at the visiting salon in the ancient stone and concrete building at the eastern tip of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

There's Georgia Lyga, the former Catholic nun who drives down from Sacramento. She sees these meetings as an important part of her Christian witness, but it's "the hardest thing I ever do," she acknowledges.

There's Bruce Bramlett, the San Rafael Episcopalian priest who, though nobody pays him, considers these gatherings part of of his pastoral duty. "There aren't a lot of other distractions. There's noth-ing else to talk about. You get down to business, and the business is the busi-ness of spiritual growth and spiritual life," he says.

And then there's Peggy Harrell, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, who has subjected herself to heartbreak, disrespect, even humiliating strip searches, to be with condemned inmates on San Quentin State Penitentiary's death row.

Harrell, Lyga, and Bramlett are among the combatants in a vigorous battle between the government of California and the handful of religious people who feel called to act as spiritual advisers to inmates awaiting execution. For these people, ministering to condemned inmates fulfills the essence of Christ's teachings to choose mercy over revenge, to love enemies, and to forswear all violence.

But in a case now being heard by the California Supreme Court, the state Attorney General's Office is attempting to deny death row prisoners the accompaniment of advisers during the final moments before the death penalty is administered. The case pits Harrell -- whose lawyers have sued seeking to allow her to give communion during a prisoner's final minutes of life -- against the Department of Corrections, which wants to expand the amount of time it can prepare for execution without outsiders present. If the state is successful, the spiritual advisers would be denied the right to comfort the condemned during what many say is religion's most crucial hour.

The Department of Corrections believes the presence of spiritual advisers in the hours immediately preceding an execution is a practical, not an emotional, matter. Although the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion, the state feels jailers have a countervailing need to maintain order during the high-stress time surrounding an execution.

The prison needs to keep death row inmates isolated from religious advisers for several hours before a lethal injection is given, San Quentin Warden Arthur Calderon says in court filings, to ensure the safety of guards, inmates, and the condemned men themselves. If these inmates wish to have spiritual advisers present during the final moments before they die, the state's legal filings say, they can use prison chaplains.

Deputy Attorney General Susan Duncan Lee, who is representing the California Department of Corrections on this case, would not specify exactly what type of disruption the government expects these members of the clergy to create. But she says "it's a very, very real danger from what has been explained to me; tension is palpable on the eve of an execution.

"It really does exist, but what the nature of the threat is, only the human heart knows."

Harrell's supporters say the state government's struggle in this lawsuit is yet another step in an ongoing process to strip the condemned of their humanity, and to turn execution into an impersonal medical procedure. Killing with a clear conscience becomes more difficult in the presence of clergy, these people say. To suggest that an inmate's preferred spiritual adviser can be swapped at the last minute with another of the state's choosing belies the nature of religious belief, Harrell's supporters say.

"It's got to be the only way a human being can cope with this, to suspend disbelief and to deal in real time with what you're doing," says Jack Moynihan, an attorney with the law firm Morrison & Foerster, which is defending Harrell. "I think that is one of the really disturbing things about having a spiritual adviser in this -- someone with a Bible -- a focal point of this process. If I were a corrections officer, that would be a deeply disturbing person to have in this process. But we think it's a constitutionally mandated presence."

Adds Michael Kroll, an East Bay investigator who focuses on death row cases: "Prison officials are trained, retrained, and constantly rehearse a process that ends in someone's death. One job, for example, is to strap someone into a gurney. Any distraction in that robotized, mechanical process creates human difficulties, emotional difficulties."

The current case, which stems from the execution last year of convicted murderer Thomas Thompson, is the latest in a series of lawsuits waged between spiritual advisers and the California Department of Corrections. Every time a prisoner who has requested outside religious support has been executed, the state of California has sued for permission to isolate the prisoner during the period before execution. Now, the attorney general is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the precedent set by its 1996 ruling that Harrell could stay with an inmate she was comforting until "final preparations for removal of [the inmate] from the area of the holding cell to the execution chamber."

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