faith in action

Voices from “Starvin’ for Justice: Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty”

Church and Society staffer, The Rev. Jeania Ree Moore, chatted with Mary Catherine Johnson, about her work with people on death row and advocacy to end the death penalty.

Earlier this summer, about 60 participants gathered at the United Methodist Building for four days of fasting and faith witness against the death penalty at the Supreme Court. Days of public sidewalk advocacy were followed by evening teach-in’s, featuring activists, death row inmates, murder victims’ family members, murderer’s family members, former executioners, and others. The Rev. Jeania Ree Moore, Church & Society staff, was present and spoke to several participants about their involvement in this annual event.

Following the event, Moore interview Mary Catherine Johnson, director of New Hope House and participant in “Starvin’ for Justice: Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty.”

Please tell me about yourself and what you are doing here on Capitol Hill.

My name is Mary Catherine Johnson, and I am here with the “Starvin’ for Justice: Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty.” This is our 25th year being here. It originally grew out of Journey of Hope – a gathering 25 years ago of murder victims’ family members, death row exonerees, people with family members on death row, and other people directly affected by the death penalty here on the steps of the Supreme Court to advocate to end the death penalty. They vowed they would continue to come here every year until the death penalty was abolished. The abolition of capital punishment is ultimately a question for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, the folks who started this did not foresee that it would take this long, or that the prospects would be dim, but that is the commitment. And now people from across the world come here for four days of public witness — to share stories, educate passersby, and just to be a presence at the court.

Tell me about your connection to the death penalty.

I am the director of New Hope House, a Christian ministry located about 10 minutes from Georgia’s death row. We are 30 years old this year. New Hope House was initially founded as a place to offer hospitality to the families and friends of death row prisoners. As you well know, there aren’t many — or any — rich people on death row, so many of the families have limited resources. We offer a place where they can stay free of charge, when visiting their family members on the row. We also provide support in navigating the constantly changing rules in the prison system. We are there to offer advice, answer questions – what hours can I visit, what can I wear, what can I bring in with me. We are there to provide that emotional and logistical support for them.

We host the families and friends of death row prisoners when they come for visitation, and we often host families during times of execution as well.

That is the most challenging time, but also the greatest gift to accompany them during what is often the worst time of their lives, when their loved one is going to be executed.

In Georgia, once the execution warrant is issued, we call it “death watch,” a two-to-three week period from when the death warrant is signed and read to the prisoner to when the execution occurs. Once the warrant is signed and read to the prisoner, the prisoner is immediately taken into a separate holding cell to await their execution, and be on suicide watch. They have two specially trained officers that are with them 24/7 that are watching them and recording what the prisoner does – everything, what they do, eat (when my friend Marcus was on death watch, I went to visit and saw the log). During that time, we are there to answer questions, be with the family, and help the family know when they can visit because the rules are very different during death watch.

There are also practical issues about burial, and that sort of thing.

So that is a large part of the ministry. I also attend death penalty trials in Georgia and sit with the defendants. They are often very alone. The courtroom is very split — the victim’s side is full of advocates, family, others, and the defendant’s side is empty, just a few family members, if even. And they are often asked to testify and beg for their loved one’s life.

We also have a fund for burials if the prisoner doesn’t have any family or money. We are not letting any of them be buried by the state — we have a separate burial location and resources to assist.

I am here because I feel like it is important to come here and educate people. I am coming on behalf of the prisoners and families I work with to educate others on what is truly the impact of the death penalty on people.

When the people are out there signing our petition, I can talk to them about the men I visit on death row and what the families experience.

Why does the Vigil happen now, in the middle of summer?

The dates are significant: today, June 29th, is the anniversary of the Furman v. Georgia decision when the Supreme Court said they had found so many problems with the application of the death penalty that they put it back on the states and said “fix it.” At that point, anyone who had the death penalty on their sentence had their sentence reduced to life imprisonment. That was 1972. We had four years without a death penalty. Then on July 2, 1976, the death penalty was reinstated with the Gregg v. Georgia decision. You hear people talk about the US having the death penalty since 1976, but we had it way before then – it goes back to before we were a country.

What are you telling people when you talk to them on the street about the death penalty?

We like to meet people where they are. There are a lot of people who are with us and tell us they support us. On the other extreme, there are people who are angry and have a lot of strong feelings about the death penalty and are for it. And again, we are glad to meet them where they are and educate them about various issues.

I think a lot of people don’t know the facts. You know, people hear about Dylann Roof, the shooter in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel AME,– being sentenced to death and think, “Yes, we’re glad we have the death penalty.” But we know that sentencing that man to death does not solve the root causes of racism, or address why he did what he did. Killing him does not solve anything, it just creates more killing.

There is a sense that we need to have the death penalty for the “worst of the worst.” People who are angry or very supportive of the death penalty use examples like him.

Another thing we hear a lot too is that people tend to personalize it: “if someone I loved — if one of my family members — were murdered, I would want the person who killed them to die.” One of the things that is so extraordinary about this event is that we have a lot of murder victims’ family members here. And they chose a different path — of forgiveness, healing. Rather than bringing it up again and having to relive it, they chose a different path. And they’re some of the strongest voices in our movement.

Personalizing murder to argue for the death penalty is an understandable response, in many ways, but those who are here have shown that there is another way, out of that darkness, that it’s not just the path of darkness.

Hearing murder victim family members who have found their way out of the darkness speak, like Marietta Jaeger Lane, is one of the reasons why I come – to hear her, to feed my soul. She inspires me to keep working and stick with it.