Reflecting on a strange moment

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Mark Bennett, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.
·6 min read
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Apr. 24—As Terre Haute and the rest of the world experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic year, the city also endured another unsettling rarity.

The federal government executed 13 inmates during a six-month span inside the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex. The prison houses the nation's only federal death chamber.

That experience has resulted in a new book, "From the Killing Fields of the Federal Government: InterFaith Essays on the Resumption of the Executions." Terre Haute contributors are among the six essayists advocating for the abolition of capital punishment. They argue against it on religious and humanitarian grounds, its unequal use based on the race and wealth, and its ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent.

"We know the world is unfair, but that should not extend all the way down to where 'We the People' are about to kill someone," said Sherry Dailey, an Indiana State University professor emerita who edited the book and wrote its prologue and epilogue.

Federal executions are far more rare than those carried out in state prison systems. Of the 2,500 inmates with death-penalty convictions nationwide today, only 47 are federal cases. And, until 2020, only three federal executions had occurred since 1963, including Timothy McVeigh at Terre Haute in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing and two others in 2001 and 2003.

But in 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr announced Department of Justice would resume federal executions, a step favored by former President Donald Trump. After legal delays, the executions indeed resumed. Twelve men and one woman were executed by lethal injection at Terre Haute between July 14, 2020, and Jan. 16, 2021. Controversy surrounded the entire process.

Barr's announcement came the morning after special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his high-profile testimony before Congress on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and questions of collusion by Trump. Critics believed the resumption of executions — three years into Trump's term — was meant to divert public attention from the probe and bolster the president's political support.

Barr rebuffed those assertions and insisted the move would appropriately bring overdue justice for the victims' families. "I think the way to stop the death penalty is to repeal the death penalty," he told The Associated Press late last year. "But if you ask juries to impose and juries impose it, then it should be carried out."

Meanwhile, Barr's Justice Department was forging ahead with the executions process despite the surging COVID-19 pandemic. Critics said the refusal to wait unnecessarily risked the health of prison staff, visitors and the Terre Haute community.

The essayists challenge the death penalty and its application in the new book, published by the InterFaith Council of the Wabash Valley in conjunction with Chalk and Fire Publishing. Some writers served as spiritual advisors to the death-row inmates and witnessed their executions. Other writers were among the protesters. A couple essayists delivered scholarly analyses, using a range of religious perspectives.

InterFaith Council members Sister Barbara Battista, Bill Breeden, Arthur Feinsod, the late Terry Gilles-Fear, Crystal Mikell Reynolds and Michael Zoosman wrote the essays. Gilles-Fear helped edit her entry — titled "We Are Better Than Vengeance" — on Dec. 12 and then died unexpectedly later that night. The book is dedicated to the memory of Gilles-Fear, who strove "to find elements in the human spirit in ways that unite, rather than divide, all of us throughout the world."

She and the other writers tackle a topic that stirs emotions and debate.

"This is one of the issues where you can't sit on the fence," Dailey said. "You've got to take a side."

So, even as the executions were ongoing, the InterFaith Council members began writing about the situation and the book took shape. "We wanted the book to have a sense of immediacy," Dailey said.

Its occurrence, right here in Terre Haute, further inspired their work.

"It's our backyard," said Feinsod, president of the council. "That's why I think it's so important we did this. ... We are the killing fields of the federal government."

Feinsod's opposition to the death penalty was forged as a 19-year-old Harvard University student. He was asked to teach a drama class to inmates at a maximum-security prison in Walpole, Mass. Some of his students were serving life sentences for murder. He acknowledges the necessity of their incarceration.

"Some of the people I met in Walpole prison, I was glad they were in prison. There were some dangerous people, so they deserved to be in prison," Feinsod recalled. "But they didn't deserve to be dead."

He connected with the inmates, who made him an honorary member of their "lifers" club. Most regretted their crimes.

"Many of them would say, 'It was the worst decision of my life. Why did I do it?'" Feinsod remembered.

One, an older inmate named Frank, "used his time to read the Bible and reflect on his past deeds," and used the wisdom he developed as a "peacemaker in that prison. He saved lives."

The new book includes an InterFaith Council resolution, calling for a ban on the death penalty. A moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level could happen under the administration of President Joe Biden, who has said he opposes capital punishment.

Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in a half-century, with just 55% of people responding to a November Gallup poll favoring capital punishment for convicted murderers. Gallup's 2019 poll showed 60% favored life imprisonment rather than a death penalty. The 2018 poll showed only 49% believed the death penalty was applied fairly.

Thirteen executions in a six-month span in Terre Haute illuminated the death penalty process, opening some Americans' eyes, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. The center takes no position for or against the death penalty, but is critical of its administration. Dunham criticized the Trump administration's "politicization" of capital punishment and for endangering the health of people involved in the executions and the local community.

"For a lot of people, this was the first time they'd seen the machinery of death this closely, and they didn't like it," Dunham said Monday in a phone interview.

The string of 13 executions in Terre Haute further hardened opinions of those already for or against the death penalty, Dunham said.

"The key question is, what's happened to the one-third of the country that's in between?" he added. "And, as best we can tell so far, most of those people have moved away from [supporting] the death penalty."

Feinsod and Dailey believe the essays in the new book — all written in different styles — could change minds and enlighten readers on the subject.

"I think it is a process, that as people go through it, start to finish, that they might change their thinking," Feinsod said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.