Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Murder of Darrell Grayson: After Comforting a Death-Row Inmate in His Final Days, a Priest Has Devoted Himself to the Cause of Abolishing the Death Penalty

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Murder of Darrell Grayson: After Comforting a Death-Row Inmate in His Final Days, a Priest Has Devoted Himself to the Cause of Abolishing the Death Penalty

Article excerpt

Denis Staunton of The Irish Times described the 2007 execution of Darrell Grayson in Alabama's Holman Prison this way: "A guard drew back the curtain, and Grayson was lying just a few feet away, a lean, handsome man, draped in a white sheet and strapped to the gurney, his arms stretched out on black arm rests, almost in cruciform. Two drips attached to his right arm disappeared into a small square opening in the wall behind, next to a microphone hanging on a hook. Grayson saw Esther Brown and smiled and winked at her, flashing the peace sign with his fingers....


"Holman's warden, Grant Culliver, entered the chamber and approached the gurney. Culliver, an African American, is obliged by Alabama law to carry out all executions at the prison himself. 'I look at it as part of the job,' he said in an interview two years ago. 'The people of the state of Alabama, because of the way the laws are written, are as responsible as I am.'...

"As Culliver read the order of execution, Grayson's breathing quickened, his chest started to heave and, for the first time, a look of anguish crossed his face. When Culliver asked him if he wanted to make a statement, Grayson just said, 'peace,' and again formed the peace sign with the fingers of each hand. The warden left the chamber to start the process of execution in a small room next door, so Grayson was now alone except for the chaplain, who remained standing rigidly in the corner. Grayson was smiling again, looking over at Brown, who mouthed the words, 'I love you,' and he mouthed back, 'I love you.'

"He exchanged a few words with the [chaplain], lay back, and waited. It was 6:04 p.m. and the deadly chemicals must now have been coursing through the canula into Grayson's vein, but nothing seemed to be happening. A minute later, Grayson looked up, smiled one more time, turned to his right ... and closed his eyes."

For months I had lived with anxiety for a friend on death row in Alabama's Holman Prison. I continued hoping until the day of the execution that some intervention by Governor Bob Riley or the U.S. Supreme Court would delay his death to allow for DNA testing to prove Darrell's innocence.

Darrell was sentenced to death in 1982 at age 19, before DNA testing. He had been convicted of rape and murder by an all-white jury, defended by a state-appointed attorney whose professional focus was divorce and who acknowledged being unprepared and underfunded by the state to defend Darrell.

For four years I had been corresponding with Darrell and reading his published poetry. I had come to believe firmly in his innocence. I flew into Atmore, Alabama on July 24, 2007, two days before the execution to visit him.

As I approached the entrance to the prison, a guard in a lookout tower adjacent to the 12-foot-high double-fencing topped with razor wire shouted down to ask the reason for my presence. I waited while someone checked into whether I was approved for admission then entered through two imposing metal gates controlled by the tower guard. I then climbed the steps to the entrance of the prison.

I was frisked by a male guard; a woman guard took my photo ID, car key, and watch, and I signed in. I was finally admitted through an electronically controlled door by a guard I could see through a window in the opposite wall.

Darrell sat at the head of a long, metal table flanked by his sister, two nephews, a niece, and an attorney. As I approached, Darrell stood with a huge grin and his arms wide open in welcome. He introduced me to the others and asked me to sit immediately to his left. Two other attorneys arrived in the early afternoon. One of them said it was encouraging at this late date not to have heard from either the governor's office or from the Supreme Court regarding a delay for DNA testing.

Leaning over to speak with me privately, Darrell told me that a big regret was that he would be leaving his brothers on death row who had come to look upon him as their teacher, a vocation he had come to realize after a long depression. …

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