By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA – Ron Kaz heard the good news while he was sitting in traffic on the interstate from Charleston. He came to the death penalty prayer vigil anyway, because he wanted to finally enjoy one.
“Twenty-two times I’ve made this trip, and this is only the second time we’ve had a stay,” Kaz said. “I couldn’t resist coming to be with you folks and not have it be an incredibly depressing experience.”
Kaz and three dozen other people came in the evening of Oct. 28 to the St. Thomas More Center, the Catholic student chapel and center at the University of South Carolina, to pray for Richard Johnson. Johnson was convicted of killing a police officer 10 years ago and was supposed to die in the state’s electric chair on Oct. 29. The S.C. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution at the eleventh hour to study possible new testimony in his case. Many people, including the widow of the victim, have asked Gov. Jim Hodges for clemency, and one of the witnesses of the murder has changed her testimony and now claims that Johnson did not kill the highway patrolman. Her credibility has been challenged. The court will rule by Nov. 10 if a new trial is warranted.
Bruce L. Pearson, a Quaker and professor emeritus of linguistics at USC, is the president of the S.C. Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He was pleased that the execution was at least postponed, but he said that Johnson’s possibly mistaken conviction was not the main reason for the vigil.
“For people of faith, the issue is not about innocence or guilt, but about right or wrong. We know that a wrong has been done. Do we want to compound it? Our position is that it’s wrong for the state to do the very thing it tells its citizens not to do,” Pearson said.
Pearson said that he once thought that the death penalty would be abolished in South Carolina by 1990. He has not given up hope and expects that the state will “catch up” with most of the civilized world and do away with capital punishment soon. He has had a patron in his struggle in the former prelate of Charleston, Bishop David B. Thompson. He may have another one entering the fray.
Father Andrew Vollkommer, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Chapin, said that the 12th ordinary of Charleston, the newly installed Bishop Robert Baker, was a death penalty activist as a parish priest and told him that he intended to become active in his new see.
“He was very instrumental in ministering to men on Death Row in Florida, even witnessing many executions in that capacity. Our movement has a great ally in our bishop … he will be a great voice on behalf of those condemned to die,” Father Vollkommer said.
Other voices were from decidedly different quarters. Seven students from Presbyterian College came to the vigil, as did Dominican Sisters Pat Keating and Joan Looney. Capital punishment activist Connie Nash came from North Carolina to support the prayer vigil.
Father Timothy Lijewski, the Catholic chaplain at USC, led the service. In his homily he spoke of the hope of the congregation “that the government would be a model for us.” He said that death penalty abolitionists were prophets for protesting the violence of the state that begets violence. And he spoke of the question that seemed centered in the minds of the vigil participants: “How can we model to our society the love and mercy of our God?”
The protesters at Thursday night’s vigil decided that prayer and the candlelight vigil at the governor’s mansion (cancelled because of the judicial stay) create that kind of modeling. They also think that the psalm they sung, “Be merciful, O Lord,” is the appropriate response to capital convictions.
More mercy is still needed, however. While the decision about Johnson’s life is still to be determined, the S.C. Department of Corrections has scheduled another execution for Nov. 12.