By TIM BULLARD
CONWAY — A prayer vigil for life and healing was offered March 6 at St. James Church at the time convicted killer John Arnold became the first death row inmate executed this year in South Carolina, following a record number of executions in 1997.
Similar vigils were held in four other locations across the diocese.
Arnold, 43, was on death row with a cousin, John Plath, for the 1978 killing of Betty Gardner, a seasonal farm worker, on St. Helena Island. Plath’s death warrant is expected to be signed sometime in May or June.
Readings at the service were from Matthew 5:1-12 with the Beatitudes, Matthew 8:1-11 and the Prayer of St. Francis. Songs included: “They’ll know we are Christians” and “I was in prison, and you visited me,” from Matthew 25:36.
The Prayer of the Faithful read: “For our president, governor, attorney general and all who must make decisions on what is just punishment for a crime.”
A Declaration of Life was also distributed from The Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty.” It stated: “I believe it is wrong for the state or other governmental entity to take the life of a human being for any reason. I believe that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime….”
In Conway, the worshipers prayed for the families of those murdered and for the murderers on death row.
“At this time we light votive candles in memory of those executed in South Carolina and their victims,” said Lisa Treese, vigil leader.
After the vigil, she said, ” I feel it’s an excellent opportunity for the public to make an impact on a decision that is made in our name. We know that our prayers are something that can change the world.”
Treese is hopeful the death penalty will be overturned in South Carolina.
“This is our ultimate dream and our goal and our prayer,” she said.
“I think it was very moving,” Father Rick LaBrecque said of the vigil. “I suppose I’m like everyone else. I have mixed feelings. I find it very moving that people care enough to come out and pray for someone and for life. At the same time you realize you’re here praying, and someone else is giving that injection by which the life is taken. It really hit me as I was sitting there praying. We are here. We are in spirit with John Arnold, but as we pray his spirit is gone at another man’s hands.”
He continued, “Instead of leaving it all to God’s timetable, human society has given this man a deadline,” he said. “It’s God who has to be the judge of those things.”
Msgr. Thomas Duffy, pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Garden City, wrote to Governor David Beasley two days before the execution, asking the governor to spare Arnold’s life. “Will his death make us safer in South Carolina?” Msgr. Duffy wrote.
The monsignor has testified at Arnold’s trial in 1978. At that time, during the second phase of court, a witness could be called to testify against the death penalty. In this case, it was Msgr. Duffy.
“I had to say to myself, I’m here to speak against killing anybody,” he said. “Tensions were high. You had to pass through metal detectors to get into the courtroom.”
One of the next death row prisoners scheduled to die is James Bernard Whipple of Horry County, who was convicted for the murder of Heather Stigliano. Whipple, a Catholic, has been ministered to by parishioners of St. James.
The morning after the vigil, Gov. Beasley’s Democratic opponent Jim Hodges spoke at Carolina Coastal University. He was told of the vigil and asked about his position on capital punishment.
“I’m for the death penalty. I do think it is a deterrent to crime,” said Hodges.