A Walk in the Dark

The rest of the country is re-appraising the death penalty; California sues to keep a minister from comforting those facing execution

The avant-garde opera Dead Man Walking -- based on Sister Helen Prejean's saga of spiritual redemption on Louisiana's death row -- so packed the War Memorial Opera House that the San Francisco Opera added an additional performance to the seven that were planned. On opening night, public television filmed the movie star-packed audience inside, and journals from Time to the Financial Times described the work as a prominent addition to America's operatic canon. On the street outside, demonstrators held candles in a silent protest against capital punishment. Helen Prejean, who attended along with movie director Tim Robbins and actors Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, joined the protesters after the performance. "I belonged with them," she said.

A few days later, Sister Prejean packed into Grace Cathedral, joining members of the Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant and other clergy for a service that sought an end to capital punishment.

As a way of suggesting that a society that conspires to kill its own members weakens under the moral weight of this choice, Buddhist Rev. Alan Senauke said, "All beings tremble in the face of violence."

Commenting on the across-the-board rejection of capital punishment by major U.S. religions, Grace Cathedral's Episcopal Bishop William Swig said, "We don't believe in a God who desires the death of sinners."

And when Sister Prejean took the podium, the moral authority she has amassed since her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize last year (although she didn't win, she had been the favorite of peace groups, human rights organizations, and 1998 laureates John Hume and David Trimble) filled the cavernous space under the cathedral's gothic ceilings.

"Dead Man Walking has been a gift of reflection to this county," said Prejean. "All you do when you kill for killing is repeat the violence."

It comes as a sad irony, then, that as the world exalts this Catholic nun for her role in providing spiritual advice to death row inmates, the state of California is still harassing a woman whom Sister Helen Prejean considers one of her greatest comrades in arms.

Margaret Harrell of San Rafael -- who has served as spiritual advisor to California death row inmates for more than a decade, at last count seeing 10 prisoners on a regular basis -- has long suffered invasive strip searches, among other indignities, when she visits San Quentin's death row. But in 1997, Harrell, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, began a legal battle with the state, which was trying to force spiritual advisors to leave the condemned long before execution. Harrell sued when condemned murderer Tommy Thompson was to die. She wanted to give communion to prisoners during the final moments before death. For many who are religious, this is life's most crucial instant, the last when salvation is attainable.

The state's position -- that it endangers prison personnel to allow Harrell to present prisoners with their last rites -- was forged under former Attorney General Dan Lungren, a man so noted for his tolerance of inmate abuse that the FBI was forced to investigate California prisons because the state's own attorney general refused to.

Lungren, a Republican, is gone now. But the California Attorney General's Office under Democrat Bill Lockyer presses on with the campaign against Margaret Harrell, and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis marches right along. State attorneys continue to meet their filing deadlines. They keep up with appeals. They respond to petitions. They make the appropriate motions. In doing so, these state lawyers continue to back the claims of the Department of Corrections, which contends that Harrell's presence at the side of a condemned inmate would disrupt the smooth functioning of an execution, and even present a security risk.

If the state wins, advisers will be required to leave death row prisoners at 11:15 p.m., 45 minutes before execution -- not quite the six hours of separation favored by San Quentin, but a lifetime in the minds of clergy wishing to offer last rites.

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 asserts 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, the inmates can use prison chaplains.

This is double nonsense, of course. Spiritual advisors can't be swapped like prison smocks. And the state may be -- just may be -- overstating its security problem in regard to the diminutive Margaret Harrell. In an unrelated case this spring dealing with last rites for the condemned, one federal judge went so far as to describe the "transparent weakness of the state's security concerns" related to denying death row inmates their spiritual wishes, calling the concerns "implausible."

So our state government finds itself in the appalling position of harassing and obstructing the religious witness of a clergywoman whom Prejean and others consider a spiritual guiding light, a Gandhian great soul.

As astonishing as this policy may be, it represents part of a running theme with Governor Gray Davis. Davis has positioned himself as an uncompromisingly craven panderer to the public's perceived desire for barbaric yet meaningless "tough-on-crime" gestures. He was an outspoken backer of this spring's Proposition 21, which now allows the state to condemn children to lethal injection. His parole board has drawn criticism nationwide for its blanket refusals of parole requests, effectively nullifying that institution's role. He has voiced strong support for California's Three Strikes law, which condemns pizza thieves and bicycle stealers and shoplifters, among others, to lifetime incarceration, and which judges, virtually to a number, have condemned.

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