Always speak favorably of others and value highly the good in them, excusing and covering up, in the best way you can, the deficiencies they might have.
Fr. Jean Pierre Medaille
Below is a reflection of one of our sisters, Sr. Pat Murphy. As we post this, Missouri is preparing to execute yet another person next week. One piece that really stood out from our conversations and what Sr. Pat heard from Mr. Smulls was that he was not the same man today as the one who was convicted and sentenced to death all those years ago. He had become a new man but was only judged from the worst point in his life.
“I am peaceful.” These words were spoken to me by Herbert Smulls while he waited for the verdict regarding the “stay” of execution.
Arriving early at the Regional site in Bonne Terre, I signed in and was asked my business. A phone communication alerted someone in another building that Herbert Smulls had a friend visiting him. I was to keep my coat since it was so cold today and I needed to walk to another building. My coat and cane were x-rayed, but keys and other objects were stored in a locker. With my driver’s license and locker key in hand, I walked through the security door, and was given directions as to which other doors would take me where I needed to be. I continued unescorted! Each door was electronically opened and locked behind me and a warden of some rank checked my ID (driver license) at various places. I was directed to room 2 where I waited for Herbert Smulls to be brought. This was a small cubicle with a wall separating me from the other side; a glass window separated us. Communication was to be done via phone.
After about a ten-minute delay, a warden and two other guards brought Herbert to the opened door on his side. They gently unbuttoned his coat and removed it before allowing him into his side of the cubicle. His hands were manacled together and connected with a chain around his waist. His feet were also chained, allowing enough linkage for walking. Every time he needed a hand (to reach for the phone, or to wipe his tears and nose) both hands had to move together, often disturbing his glasses which then needed to be righted. I desperately wanted to unlock his chains and clean those glasses!
As you may know, he and I have corresponded for nearly eight years, but we had never met. Today (January 28, the morning prior to his scheduled execution date) we met for the first time and I became privy to parts of his life that I had not yet heard. I knew he was adopted because I had met his birth-mother at a court hearing several years ago. He says his adoptive home was a good one, although it was still in the ghetto. He was quite gifted athletically, and I have found him very good intellectually, also. The family and he had high hopes that he could get a scholarship and end up playing with the NBA. However, about the time he was 19 years old, he had a shotgun pointed at him…. He raised his hand and knocked the gun down as the gun went off. The result, a badly disfigured and functionally disabled hand, ended his hopes athletically. He felt he had failed himself and his family. He had no chance of success in his own mind. There was no one in his life who could point him in a new positive direction, either.
In our conversation Herbert pointed out that choices open to a person in the ghetto are quite different from what a middle-class person could choose. What you have neither seen nor been exposed to certainly wouldn’t cross your mind as an option at a time like this. He was so discouraged that he “joined” the violence in his neighborhood; in his words, he “went down the wrong path.”
I’m not clear about the next part. He admits being at the jewelry store to steal; however, he claims that he and his younger friend “left” and he does not know how the murder “went down.” In retrospect, I wonder if he was not physically present or if it was his mind that “left the premises.” What if he was on drugs or got too frightened to think straight? If that is true, Herbert feels that it clearly was not premeditated on his part and should not have been judged worthy of the death-penalty.
We talked about many things while we were together. When I asked him where his heart and mind were regarding the expected execution at midnight, he seemed to be at peace. He talked about his Bible and the phone connections he has with several prayer groups. I asked him about his feelings regarding the possibility of the 60-day stay. He stated that he did not want to “go through this again” referring to the move to this facility. He would rather have stayed at Potosi where the guards knew him and he was comfortable with the guards. Here in Bonne Terre they are all strangers to each other. He feels violated over the fact that his “space” has a full glass side with two guards observing him at every second. He can’t even go to the toilet without being watched. (Is the goal to keep him from committing suicide which would prevent the state from executing him???)
However, in the next string of conversation following his claim that he doesn’t want to go through this again, Herbert talked of the hope that, given 60 days, there is the possibility that the death penalty will be dropped in Missouri. At this time I felt that he was thinking he had 60 days rather than 24 hours….
Some of the more personal moments involved our sharing feelings for one another. He was happy that I had declined the invitation to witness the actual execution. Then he got “ecstatic” knowing I planned to come and visit with him. He was aware of my discomfort after sitting for so long, knowing from my letters that I had had recent back surgery. It was he who terminated our visit because he did not want me to be so uncomfortable. That, coming from a man facing imminent death.
Once he stood up and nodded to the warden standing just outside the door, I also stood. He was agitated over the fact that it was taking them so long (maybe 10 minutes) to bring the guards who would take him back to his holding cell. I made gestures to let him know I was OK with this, and he gave me a broad smile. As he was readied to leave his side of the cubicle, phones having been hung up, his coat on and buttoned, he mouthed “I love you,” to me through the glass. I was able to say “I love you, too back at him. Leaving the visiting area seemed so final to me…. I also shed tears.
Instead of being executed at 12:01 am as originally scheduled, the “stay” request wasn’t settled until much later. This gave me the opportunity to call him on the phone around 11:30 the following morning. He claimed to still be peaceful, not agitated. He was trusting God to be with him. His actual execution took place at 10:20 pm. For sure, Herbert Smulls is now at peace with our God of Peace.
The following is from an article written by Sr. Jean Iadevito as she quotes Judy Cannato’s book, Field of Compassion. I found to be my own prayer as well….
Incomprehensible Holy Mystery, in and through your grace I can hold the gift of this moment in time. Help me embrace each and every resurrection, every experience of self-transcendence and self-dissolution that invites me to enflesh compassion and love in the world. May I continue to grow in my capacity to witness so that I may form intentions that are life-giving for all. May I engage the new story of connectedness in a way that facilitates my own evolution and calls others to evolve as well. May we together manifest a Field of Compassion, a place where the holy and human converge in grace. Amen.
As I sit with Sr. Pat’s story I have to ask myself, do I hold others eternally accountable for acts committed in the past, with no chance of redemption? If I believe to be a follower of Jesus, how can I deny another the possibility of being reborn and made new? Who am I to judge?
On the path with you and Sr. Pat Murphy, CSJ