The Witness

"And tonight, my brothers and sisters, we add one Donald Jay Beardslee."

On Jan. 18 I went with my father to the protest against convicted murderer Donald Beardslee's execution at San Quentin. Because the roads leading to the prison had been closed, we had to walk about a mile from the parking area to the gates, where we joined about 400 demonstrators waiting in the biting cold.

At the front of the crowd there was a stage and a microphone, and, behind them, four blinding lights shone from inside the prison fence. The small sea of people looked like a hazy mass of silhouetted heads, obscured by the mist and the refracted fluorescent light. I could barely make out the guest speakers, but because a 4-foot-tall electronic speaker stood right next to my head, I could hear them just fine. Lecture topics included compassion, forgiveness, human hearts, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday had been celebrated the day before; the odd agitator yelled, "What about the victims?"

First there was Laura Griffin, 54. Beardslee killed her in 1969. He served nearly 10 years in prison before a team of experts reviewed his case, read about what a model inmate he'd been, and deemed him fit for the real world once more. They freed him on parole -- and four years later he killed again. It was 1981, and his new victims were Stacey Benjamin, 19, and Patty Geddling, 23. This time the state sentenced Beardslee to die.

"It's a sad thing," mused my father, a vehement opponent to the death penalty, "but if you kill someone you should just be put away on a shelf somewhere, no second chances. What was he doing out?"

Surrounding us were many sniffling people. I was sniffling, too, for it was cold and my nose was running, but others were clearly crying.

A man suggested, "Let us pray now for our brother Donald."

"This is ridiculous," my father muttered. "Do these people feel really sorry for him? That's just not the point." He frowned and blew into his cold hands. "He's a bad man and should be locked in a cell for the rest of his life. We're not supposed to feel sorry for him."

But righteousness thundered from the speakers. One man prophesied that some day soon compassion would tumble down the mountainsides like rushing floodwater. Another spoke tremulously of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

I tried to imagine how Beardslee must have felt just then, walking down the halls of death row, in the famous and shadowy Valley. I wanted to think of Beardslee's pain, to be as bighearted as the somber people around me. An upwelling of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" crawled through the dense crowd. Surely this would do it, I thought, surely now my heart would melt. There were no harmonies, though, and too many singers were off-key. As a rabbi thundered on about justice and the soul, my supper climbed up my throat.

In due time, midnight arrived. A woman next to me began to weep. Donald Beardslee was dying. A long moment of silence began; even the agitators hushed up. The warden was supposed to come out and tell us when Beardslee was dead so that everyone could go home, but the silence stretched on. Ten past midnight, a quarter past. We held fast. Some were stoic; many sobbed. The wind off the bay picked up by the minute. Twenty past, 25 past, half past -- and then word arrived.

"We've just been told," a woman said though the giant speaker, "that Donald Beardslee was pronounced dead at 12:24 a.m." A grave and quiet murmur rustled through the crowd. My father and I turned toward each other and shrugged slightly. As we ambled through the darkness to our car, a man's voice behind us spoke the names, one by one, of all the people ever executed by the state of California.

"And tonight, my brothers and sisters, we add one Donald Jay Beardslee." (Alastair Bland)

 
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