A Night Spent Waiting for Death to Come: College Students Join Vigil at Prison, Learn of Crime, Punishment

By Dix, Tara K. | National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Night Spent Waiting for Death to Come: College Students Join Vigil at Prison, Learn of Crime, Punishment


Dix, Tara K., National Catholic Reporter


College students join vigil at prison, learn of crime, punishment

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- It's 20 degrees outside. One hundred fifty people huddle together in pools of candlelight. They sing softly. They pray.

Red, blustery faces, stained with exhaustion and tears, look to one another for comfort and support. They bounce back and forth on their toes -- left to right and right to left. An aboriginal dance. They dance for warmth. Frozen toes begin to feel again.

A beep from a watch alarm and they know it is midnight. They kneel. Some cry out. Some weep in silence. The State of Indiana has just executed Gary Burris.

Burris was convicted of murder in the first degree for the 1980 killing of Kenneth Chambers, an Indianapolis cab driver. On a night much like this one, Chambers' dead body lay frozen to the concrete, stripped of his clothing in a pool of his own blood. Now, 17 and a half years later, Burris, too, has died. An eye for an eye. Life for a life.

Outside the prison, the protesters are still shouting, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind! State murder is still murder! Execution is not the solution!" circling the parking lot with their signs in a quasi-militaristic march. Three young black women lead the chants from the center of the circle, their voices hoarse from hours of protest. They have traveled from Gary, Ind., this night to protest, just as they did July 18 when Tommie Smith was put to death at this same facility. That night it took the state one hour and 20 minutes to complete Smith's execution. The crowd wonders how long it will take tonight.

Prison guards leer from their posts in towers, booths and squad cars, keeping close watch on the scene, while TV cameras zoom in on individual faces. Soon the guards will ban the protesters from using the washroom in the guard shack, forcing them to walk about two blocks to the Dunkin' Donuts store if they have to go "Are you joking?" shouts one of the protesters at this announcement. Another quips, "What do they think we're going to do, start an insurrection from the stall?"

Indeed, the tension is high this night at the front gates of the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The likelihood of confrontation has been reduced by the smallness of the pro-execution faction -- only one makes his presence known. He stands apart holding a sign with Romans 13:1-4 on it: "Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves."

Soon he will get into a shouting match with a small group of protesters who will hurl Bible verses back at him until another group of protesters intervenes.

Among the protesters

Most of those here tonight are students and faculty from the University of Notre Dame about one hour east of the prison. The Notre Dame chapter of Amnesty International, along with the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School, organized the trip as well as a candlelight vigil back on the Notre Dame campus.

On the way to Michigan City, the students are nearly giddy with nervous excitement. In Amnesty International meetings they discuss death penalty issues all the time, but none has ever done this before. Only their leader, Sr. Kathleen Beatty, knows what to expect. The students have been briefed on the possibility of confrontation with pro-death penalty groups. "We will not say anything back to them," Beatty instructs. "We will remain in prayerful silence." Nodding their heads in agreement, they exchange wide-eyed looks.

They talk about the Burris case between songs of prayer and comfort. "Does everyone know `The Prayer of St. Francis'?" asks senior Megan Monahan from the front of the van. They begin singing, "Make me a channel of your peace/ Where there is hatred let me sow your love/ Where there is injury your pardon, Lord ... "

Exiting the interstate, the group gets lost on the small streets of Michigan City.

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