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Death Penalty Sermon Stories

Faith that Abides
Ray Krone, an Air Force veteran who migrated from Pennsylvania to Arizona, settled down in Phoenix. But Ray’s idyllic life changed on August 7th, 1992 when he was found guilty of murder. Ray had so believed in his innocence, and he trusted implicitly in the eventual efficiency of the criminal justice system that when he was first arrested he was more concerned about his dogs being fed, than he was about what could possibly happen to him. Even after Ray received the death penalty, his sister believed it would be okay because he was innocent and God provided for the innocent.

Repeatedly, the family reports that their deep faith in God made them feel like Ray’s ordeal was simply a bad dream. They also believed in a system of justice that worked to uphold the rights of innocent people. This is why they were deeply grieved and angered when Ray was found guilty of a crime he never committed.

Ray describes life on death row as abominable. Guards always strip-searched him before he left the cellblock, inmates lived in a constant state of fear of violence from guards and one another, and there was always a sense of total isolation. The rules concerning visitation and telephone calls were arbitrary and appeared to change at the whim of the guards so visitation from family, who lived across the country, was sporadic at best. Yet, through it all, Ray continued to trust that his innocence would be proven.

Even with Ray and his family’s faith being continually tested, they refused to accept that Ray would be put to death for a crime he did not commit. They believed in Ray and had faith in God. The scant evidence and new effective legal counsel finally persuaded the Court to grant ray a new trial. Despite this good news, the verdict of the second trial was the same as the first; guilty. Ray was crushed, but yet he continued to believe and maintain his innocence.

After waiting five more long years, continuing to build community support for Ray and spending all their savings, Ray’s family was able to set him free. On April 29 2002, ten years after his ordeal began, Ray was freed from prison. Looking back on the suffering Ray and his family endured, Ray understood it took a family and a community to save Ray. In the face of continuing obstacles, Ray and his family trusted God in order to prove what they had always known: that Ray was an innocent man.

Taken from Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, by Rachel King. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 12-48.

Healing through Forgiveness
Walter Everett, a United Methodist pastor, was devastated when he received the news that his 24-year-old son, Scott, had been murdered. Joining a support group for families of homicide victims, he soon found that its members were holding onto their anger 15 to 20 years after the murder. Walt knew what his anger was doing to him and also knew he couldn’t continue to live with that rage. He began to pray, asking God to take away that anger.

The answer was many months in coming and came in a most unexpected way. Almost a year after Scott’s death, Walt sat in court with his family and friends waiting for the sentencing of the offender. When the judge asked Mike if he would like to say anything, Mike stood and said, “I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett. I wish I could bring him back. These must sound like empty words to the Everetts, but I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”

Walt felt the prodding of God, “This is the answer to your prayer. You need to respond to that.” And so, on the first anniversary of Scott’s death, Walt wrote to Mike.

After telling of his pain and loneliness, he finally wrote, “Having said all that, I want to thank you for what you said in court, and, as hard as these words are to write, I forgive you.”

Today Walt says, “Believe me, those were the hardest words I’ve ever written. I didn’t feel good about Mike, but I’ve since discovered that feeling good about the other person is not a requirement for forgiveness. What is necessary is a desire to heal, and a willingness to open oneself to God’s direction in the pursuit of that healing.

Walt adds, “God does not take away those negative feelings and actions without replacing them with a new direction which leads to healing.”

Walt eventually spoke on Mike’s behalf before the Board of Parole, and today Mike, whose life has been changed by Christ, is a productive member of society, speaking often before varied audiences of the change God has made in his life. At one such event, Mike said, “Walt saved my life.”

Walt responded, “Correction, Mike; God saved your life, and God saved my life too.

Finding New Meaning Out of Tragedy
Manny Babbitt served two tours of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. In his second tour he was severely traumatized at the battle of Khe-Sanh, and was honorably discharged and sent home to be treated. Like so many other veterans, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and, in addition, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

For a time he received extensive treatment at a mental hospital in Massachusetts, but eventually was told that they could do no more for him and he was discharged. Manny then moved to California to live with his brother, Bill, and Bill’s family. Bill was in the process of seeking additional help for Manny when there was a murder in the community.

While the police were stymied, Bill and his wife, Linda, began to see signs that indicated that Manny had been involved. Bill went to the police telling them of Manny’s psychiatric problems. The police said, “Turn him in, and we’ll get him the help he needs.” Bill trusted that the help the police spoke of involved treatment for the serious mental health problems Manny suffered from.

However, the only help provided by the state was a trial, conviction, and death sentence. In 1981 Manny was executed by the state of California despite his mental health status and the fact that he was a decorated war hero who had saved the life of another Vietnam veteran.

Bill firmly believed that by reporting Manny to the police, he would get the help he needed. This was not the case and even after his death, Bill and the family are left wondering if there is not more that they could have done. He feels that his love for his brother and his duty to seek the safety of the community were both betrayed when Manny was given the death penalty instead of treatment. For them, the death of Manny did not bring healing and wholeness for either the victim or for Manny. In addition, their grief over Manny’s death is compounded by their feeling of isolation from the community.

Bill, through the support of members of the “abolition community”, has found the courage to speak out against the death penalty, knowing that it often victimizes the mentally ill and always victimizes the families of the executed.

Taken from Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, by Rachel King. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 49-86.

Faith that Perseveres
Reggie Clemons was nineteen years old when he was arrested and charged with the murder and rape of two sisters in St. Louis County, Missouri. Although another young man, Tom Cummins had confessed, been arrested, and changed his story several times, it was Reggie, an African American, who was ultimately charged with the crime.

During questioning he was beaten by the police and denied access to an attorney. At his arraignment, Reggie’s face was disfigured to such an extent that the judge ordered he report immediately to the hospital. His attorney had never tried a death penalty case before, and it showed as Reggie’s appeal detailed over fifty errors that had occurred during his initial trial. However, this was ruled as invalid during the appeals process because his attorney had failed to raise them at his original trial. His attorney was eventually disbarred for unprofessional conduct.

Reggie and his family continue to struggle with the knowledge that he has been unfairly treated by the system. They also face the very real possibility that Reggie may be put to death for a crime he has consistently confessed his innocence to. As of March 2006, Reggie, thirty three, was still on death row awaiting a final execution date.

In the midst of this overwhelming struggle to achieve Reggie’s innocence his mother said that she has not stopped believing in God and fighting to prove her son’s innocence. In that fight she continually reaches out to the community for support and as a way to feel in a real the strength of God in whom she continues to trust.

Taken from Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, by Rachel King. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 246-269.

An Unexpected Mission
Since the execution of their son on January 21st, 2000, Ken and Lois Robinson have tried to convey with others the message that we can all work to ease suffering that exists in this world. Their son, Larry had been convicted of killing four people whom he knew because he said that voices in his head had told him to do this in order to free the people’s souls from their bodies.

The family says that they repeatedly tried to get help for Larry’s illness. His time in the Air Force allowed him to seek care at the Veteran’s Hospital. However, his time at Veteran’s Hospital ended like his other attempts at mental health care, as he was discharged quickly since he was not violent. Due to a lack of needed funds the hospital had to make room for violent patients and so Larry was forced out.

After the murders, one of the victim’s families spoke with Lois. Both families were able to meet during the second trial when there was no longer a fear of witness tampering. Lois described her great sorrow over Larry’s actions and members of Ricky’s family replied by stating that they were grieved and did not want Larry to get the death penalty. Both families agreed that the greatest need was for greater access to health care rather than pursuing vengeance.

Today, Ken and Lois continue to advocate for the treatment and not punishment of mentally ill individuals. They have appeared publicly on programs such as Oprah and 48 Hours. They are also members of CURE in which they advocate for the health of the mentally ill and for the support of their families.

Taken from Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories, by Rachel King. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 184-220.

Kathy
Kathy was just 14 when her father, a state trooper, was killed after having stopped a speeding vehicle. He did not know that the occupants of the car had just committed an armed robbery. The murderers were apprehended and everyone was calling for the death penalty, but Kathy, at 14, felt there was something wrong with killing somebody to prove that it was wrong to kill somebody. For one of the men it was due to the vote of one juror that a sentence of 25 years to life was given rather than the death penalty. The other man was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Ten years later, when she was 24, Kathy’s fiancé was shot and killed. Those who committed the crime served short sentences and were released.

Kathy, who has twice suffered the devastation of loss to murder, says, “In my heart, I believe I have forgiven them, and I ask: What kind of start did they have in life to bring them to the point at which they so devalue human life?”

Kathy, a committed Christian, is sure that Jesus has called her to forgive, and in that forgiveness, she has found the peace to endure two of life’s greatest tragedies.