THE COUNSELORíS CORNER

Did you see the story in March about the dispute between the now-executed double murderer, Robert Lee Massie, and the California Department of Corrections?It seems Mr. Massie wanted to have his minister with him for the forty-five minutes preceding his execution.The State Supreme Court unanimously rejected this request, deferring to the San Quentin Prison and its policy concerning death row inmates and security risks.

 

This issue arose in 1998 with death row inmate Thomas Thompson.San Quentinís old policy would have taken Thompsonís spiritual advisor from him six hours prior to his execution.After numerous court hearings, a compromise was reached in which it was agreed that Mr. Thompson could have his advisor with him until 11:15 p.m.††

What does San Quentin need the forty-five minutes for?Apparently, there are a number of pre-execution duties, such as having a physician attach a heart monitor to the inmate (Why? Itís not going to matter in forty-five minutes.), and time for the warden to ask the inmate for his last words.(How would a spiritual advisor interfere with this?)

In addition, time is apparently needed for guards to have the inmate put on a fresh set of clothes and be escorted from his cell to the death chamber.(He needs to be alone for this?)A San Quentin spokesman indicated that one problem with having a spiritual advisor present is that it could distract the inmate.(If I were forty-five minutes from the gas chamber, I wouldnít mind a little distraction.)

 


Their other reason for wanting 45 minutes is more thought-provoking: the Corrections Department does not want the spiritual advisor or friends of the executee to learn the identity of the individual who will be doing the execution, indicating that some renegade minister might pose a threat to the executioner or his family.Well, maybe we ought to go back to the old guillotine days, during which the executioner wore a mask.I mean, whatís more important, that the individual be permitted to spend his last forty-five minutes with a spiritual advisor to attempt to perhaps make some meaning out of the end of his life, or this Department of Corrections concern that I believe has some merit but is far outweighed in this case.

 

The State Supreme Court did not see it this way, and voted unanimously not to second guess the Department of Corrections decision.The court did acknowledge the benefit of having oneís spiritual advisor with him right before his execution indicating that ďmost religions view the last minutes of life as a time when the need for spiritual advice and comfort is particularly compelling.ĒThe court, however, decided that prisoners, including those about to be put to death, have, in effect, forfeited this benefit.

There are other states which have addressed this issue that do permit spiritual advisors to stay with the prisoner up until the execution.This is clearly doable.

 

There is also a related court challenge coming in light of the recent Federal Court ruling indicating that media representatives have a right to witness the entire execution procedure, not just the execution itself.The court in that case felt that the public interest in executions outweighs the previously mentioned security concerns, including the learning of the identity of the executioner.

 


Needless to say, if a member or members of the media become a part of this process and are not excluded forty-five minutes before death, oneís spiritual advisor ought to be able to stay with the individual as well.

 

I want to make it clear that I fully understand the concerns of the Department of Corrections and donít want to make light of them.Well, I do want to make light of the ministerial (no pun intended) ones not at all related to the learning of the identity of the executioner, but letís do a balancing test here, and decide which is more important, and whether the two are mutually exclusive.Again, other states have found a way to protect the executionerís identity and still allow the spiritual advisor to remain with the executee.

 

This is one of those situations in which I feel it would be extremely appropriate for a bureaucracyto compromise.Obviously, I donít have a great deal of sympathy for a double murderer who is about to die; however, I donít think we are asking too much of our system to have this issue resolved in a manner in which both parties have their needs met.