Death Row Is His Parish

Media interest in death row is, well, episodic. Nobody has a bureau there. But so many news outfits wanted in to see the Stateville execution of Charles Walker that the Department of Corrections finally drew nine names out of a hat.

The results were pretty funny. Radio stations in Springfield (one the NPR outlet) won two of the coveted billets. But the Chicago Tribune came up empty and so did the Sun-Times. Next time you execute someone, the Tribune’s Springfield bureau chief proposed, rig up closed-circuit TV so all of us can watch it.

Between executions, news from death row is harder to come by. If you’re actually looking–and we’ll understand it if you’re not–pick up Last Rights, an angry, gloomy new book. No sooner does the author, Joseph Ingle, make us care about one of his friends than the friend is executed. This happens 13 times in a row and it’s really a downer.

“Friend” is a word Ingle actually uses. Even if you belong to the good-riddance school of penology, you probably don’t begrudge the condemned a man of the cloth for company. Ingle is that company. A minister with the United Church of Christ, he’s director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, and death row is his parish. He despises it. “Justice, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation,” he writes, “are unknown elements in a system designated for extermination.”

He’s sometimes a little casual about what these 13 people on death row did to put themselves there. For example, “The events that sent David Washington to Death Row culminated in the killing of three people.” And, “Robert Wayne Williams had been involved in a robbery of a drug store in Baton Rouge. He had a gun. The security guard, Willie Kelly, was killed. Williams was on drugs at the time and was not in command of himself.” Ingle does not exactly meet these crimes head-on.

Hardened reporters might accuse him of flinching. “Willie [Darden] looked at me, holding me fast with his gaze. I had removed the Committee of Southern Churchmen symbol that I wear around my neck. I held the symbol in my clenched fist before my face. Willie Darden and I looked into each other’s eyes, the symbol uniting us in life and into death. The guards tilted Willie’s shaved head back against the chair at an uncomfortable angle. With his head held back, a chin strap was fastened around his jaw. . . . Then, as they dropped the black mask over his face, he waved good-bye with his left hand, even though his arm was strapped down to the infernal device. I almost lost control. After his face was covered, I returned the cross to my neck and dropped my head in unceasing prayer.” Ingle doesn’t look up again until Willie Darden is dead.

And he fails to shape the book with an eye to commerce. A shrewd editor would have told Ingle to deal with his condemned friends a little more coolly, then pound home anguish at the proper time–which is when he describes the extermination of the three prisoners he is sure were innocent.

One of whom was Willie Darden.

But if Joseph Ingle believes that executing the innocent is a terrible thing, he also believes that executing the guilty is a terrible thing, a godless act that serves no end but vengeance. And the reader who follows Ingle into the company of the damned for their final days and hours is apt to decide that Ingle might be right.

Ingle visited Chicago last week. We said we’d noticed that every prisoner he wrote about seemed to have blossomed spiritually on death row. Doesn’t this speak well of death row? we asked him.

“No,” he said. “Anyone who has seen what death row is like up close like I have done knows it does everything it possibly can to destroy what is the good in people. It’s a fundamentally evil experience that contaminates everyone who comes into contact with it.”

Including you? we said.

“Oh, certainly,” Ingle said. “It’s been very deadening in some ways to have to deal with this continually. That’s a challenge I face in my own spiritual life. You don’t walk out unscathed.”

Is your faith at risk? we asked.

“I think that’s for sure,” said Joe Ingle.

Although capital punishment has been abolished almost everywhere else in the Western world, here in America candidates for office boast of their eagerness to shoot, fry, gas, and poison. Two groups of public servants really catch it from Ingle. One is the Supreme Court, which banished capital punishment back in the 60s but whose only problem with it these days is that smart lawyers find too many ways to put it off.

Then there are the governors of the south. He remembers trying “to hold my cynicism in check,” when he hears the governor of Louisiana is “really wrestling” with the case of Robert Wayne Williams. “I had been down this road too many times before to set any store by a governor who indicated his concern,” he writes. “I had met with Governor Graham in Florida, corresponded with Governor Winter in Mississippi, tried to move Governor Clements in Texas, and now I saw the same situation developing through the “concern’ of Governor Treen of Louisiana.”

Sure enough, Governor Treen refuses to grant Williams clemency. “He indicated it was not his prerogative to overturn the court’s decision, and closed with what was becoming a routine and nauseating exercise of Southern governors: invoking the will of God to support such action.”

This hypocritical exercise is not routine yet in the north. But a new day is dawning. Before Charles Walker, no one had been executed in Illinois in 28 years. Behind Walker, another 124 condemned prisoners, 80 of them black, wait their turn.

Walker said he wanted to die–he was sick of prison. But Joseph Ingle has heard that one before. “You have kept them in a cage for years and told them you are going to kill them and finally they reach the breaking point and give up,” he said. “It’s part of the process of execution that’s so dehumanizing.”

Gary Gilmore, whose 1977 execution in Utah ended a decade of national abstinence, also wanted to die. But John Spenkelink didn’t. Spenkelink was the first prisoner Joseph Ingle would meet on death row, and Ingle couldn’t figure out what he was doing there. When Spenkelink was 12 his father had committed suicide and after that he’d drifted into a life of petty crime. But there was no history of violence; and Spenkelink was so insistent that he’d acted in self-defense when he shot a man in a motel room that he refused to plead guilty to second degree murder. “He struck me as an eminently decent person,” writes Ingle.

John Spenkelink died in Florida’s electric chair in 1979. “He was the second,” Ingle told us. “John fought desperately. And I fought with him.”

Do you think the governor of Illinois will step in to save Charles Walker? we asked Ingle last week.

“I think he’ll practice the politics of the death penalty,” Ingle predicted–accurately. “Most people want this man killed.”

Coffee Boycott News

Lauren Martens finally got the ink he was looking for. The Tribune’s Jon Margolis devoted a column to Martens’s cause.

Martens is the Chicago director of Neighbor to Neighbor, a national organization that’s leading a boycott of coffee from El Salvador. Coffee is El Salvador’s primary export, and most of it winds up in the U.S. By drinking that coffee, Martens reasoned in one of his press releases, we Americans are “funding the military in El Salvador responsible for the murders of six Jesuit priests and tens of thousands of civilians.”

It bothered Martens that Chicago’s dailies were paying no attention to his crusade. There was no mention of April’s City Council resolution to “encourage” the city to join the boycott; no mention of the June picket line formed outside Evergreen Fine Foods, “the first store targeted in the Chicago area by the boycott”; and no mention of the supermarket’s agreement last month to stop carrying Folger’s coffee for 30 days.

Martens had issued press releases and he’d placed phone calls to the dailies’ city desks. But the papers didn’t bite. Not until Jon Margolis, who happened to walk by Evergreen and see the picketers, decided to write about them.

Margolis described the picketers as “self-righteous . . . extortionists” of a “totalitarian” turn of mind. “If there is a case to be made for the boycott,” wrote Margolis, “there is barely one for singling out Folger’s and there was none at all for targeting Evergreen. Almost all U.S. coffee makers buy some Salvadoran coffee. Neighbor to Neighbor has chosen to pick on Folger’s because it’s biggest, which might be fair had it not picked on Evergreen because it is small.”

This isn’t quite what Martens had in mind. He thinks, needless to say, that Margolis was “extreme in his criticism.” And he makes an interesting point: “I also fault the editorial policy that would run an opinion on a news story without running the news story,” he told us. “It doesn’t strike me as a good example of objective journalism that the only news Tribune readers heard about the local boycott was through a subjective opinion piece.”

We told Margolis that Martens felt the Tribune owed him some straight reporting.

“That’s perhaps not an unreasonable request,” he said. “I suppose nobody knew about it”–meaning the picketing. On the contrary, we said; Martens made every attempt to notify. “In that case,” said Margolis, “there was a judgment made that it was inconsequential, a judgment I could not argue with.”

You wrote about it, we pointed out.

“But that’s because I thought it was silly,” said Margolis, using logic that might be clear only to another columnist. “It was inconsequential. It was the failure of a boycott. I used to be a national political reporter. If you take away the 25 people who covered national politics in the last five years, I bet 1 percent of the people have heard of Neighbor to Neighbor.

“Now I’ll contradict myself. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. If a couple of people had covered [the boycott] it wouldn’t have been such an inconsequential story.”

Now he had it! “I bet nobody at Neighbor to Neighbor knows how to write a press release!” Margolis proposed. “If I’d been working for Neighbor to Neighbor, I’d have known how to get it in the papers.”