By Rev. Cheryl Smith
She did pretty well for the first couple of hours. Small for her age, the girl was nevertheless a powerhouse as she paced, worrying about her mother and shepherding her brother in the small crowd standing in the 95 degree heat of a Texas September day.
We were all outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where an execution was scheduled to take place for a crime committed 12 years before. The condemned, Robert, was only 20 when the gang of which he was a part ambushed a group of women returning from work. Four innocent women were killed. Never able to pin the murder directly on Robert, the State was nonetheless able to convict Robert of capital murder under the Law of Parties. None of the other gang members eligible for conviction under this law were convicted, either pleading out or being convicted of other crimes instead. Robert alone would be put to death for a murder that he did not commit, but was present when it happened. Now 32, Robert was scheduled for execution at 6:00 PM unless the last-minute appeal to the U.S Supreme Court yielded a stay.
As the clock ticked past 6:00 P.M., those of us standing vigil on the street corner became hopeful. Perhaps the Supreme Court would intervene. Perhaps life in prison would be a more appropriate sentence for a young man who was never convicted of the murder but whose conviction was for being around when it happened. The farther past 6:00 it got, the more hope became palpable. The State of Texas is prompt with its killings. They don’t run late . . . ever. Perhaps a delay of even a few minutes indicated some interest in the case by the Supreme Court justices. Time ticked slowly until it was soon two hours past the fateful hour. We were all still waiting. Most vigilant of all was the 16 year old girl whose eyes continually scanned the scene, never missing a detail.
The sympathies of the demonstrators were clearly with the children standing with us. Robert’s 16 year old sister and 10 year old brother were there attended by a family friend while their mother was in the Visitors’ Center. If the execution went forward, the mother would be escorted across the street to the death chamber to witness the lethal injection. The final process had not started, at least for the moment. All eyes watched the street, but none more closely than the girl’s. She kept her brother and herself back from the front line so as not to upset their mother even more should she have to walk past them.
The wails of the young sister announced the breaking news that the execution was proceeding. They came shortly after 8:00 P.M. Within short order, the media witnesses and the family members were escorted from the Visitors’ Center to the Walls Unit. There they would witness the killing. Despite the darkness of the night, the children could make out the figure of their mother as she made her way across the street. Despite their best intentions to remain strong, upon seeing her they cried out with pitiful, thready voices. Holding out their hands to their mother, they gulped, “Mommy! Oh, Mommy!” I held them, although I had known them for less than three hours. Sobbing and wailing, they cried into the comfort of borrowed arms, although we all knew they longed for their mother.
Regaining control, if only briefly, the girl grasped at me. “Let’s pray!” she pleaded. “Let’s hold hands and pray.” There in the dark of that Texas night, we formed a circle and I offered heartfelt though inadequate words asking for comfort and peace. Indeed, what words of prayer could be adequate while the State was killing a family member at that moment? I am sure I do not know! Having said, “Amen,” together, we all sat down on the grass. The boy and girl gave into cries of anguish I never thought to hear from the mouths of children; “My brother! Please don’t kill my brother!”
I sat there alternately holding the children and allowing them their fury. In pastoral ministry circles, it might be suggested that I was offering the ministry of presence, but it felt a lot like I was offering the ministry of shared helplessness. What were we doing there anyway? Why, exactly, were we here making vigil while there was a deliberate killing just yards away?
In that moment, I wanted all of the legislators and prosecutors and voters who support capital punishment there with me, enfolding the sobbing body of this 10 year old boy. I wanted all the citizens of my state there with me as I tried to comfort the anguished teenage girl who cried en extremis, her mind struggling to accept the unacceptable. As their cries reached the God of heaven and earth more eloquently than my prayers had, I wanted company on the ash heap as the cries of the children rang in our ears.
As I walked them to their car, I gave them one last hug, telling them I would carry them in my heart. I asked the family friend if I could do anything further for them before they drove away. Gazing toward the red-bricked Walls Unit where Robert lay dying while the mother looked on, she spoke softly. “Pray for everyone who works in this system,” she said. “Pray for them, because someday they are going to realize what they have done, and it will be hard for them.”
And with that, she drove the children into the night toward a church where the body would be taken for family visitation before being taken to the funeral home. The children’s cries no longer rent the air, but it will be a far day before they no longer rend my heart. Lord, forgive us. We still know not what we do.