Sunday, February 15, 2009

'Peaceful, prayerful presence'

February 15, 2009

'Peaceful, prayerful presence'

Staff Writer
STARKE -- The baby was in intensive care. Not yet 3 months old, she had a subdural hematoma, fractured skull and broken leg.

Her father was arrested, charged with battery. Her grandmother Florence Carey, a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church, knew just what she needed to do.

She forgave him.

Seven years after her faith was put to the test, Carey, a retired 62-year-old nurse from Ormond Beach, stood with more than 50 people inside a roped-off box labeled OPPONENTS, squinting into the setting sun behind Florida State Prison's walls a few hundred yards away.

On Wednesday, she and most of the others came by bus from Destination Daytona to the prison, a few miles from Starke, the seat of rural Bradford County. Convicted killer Wayne Tompkins, 51, lay on a gurney in a chamber inside the prison awaiting his last breath.

The Rev. Phil Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Daytona Beach, helped organize this "peaceful, prayerful presence" outside the prison -- just as he has for the 15 executions since Aileen Wuornos was injected with a combination of killer drugs in 2002.

Carey came because she believes state-run executions are morally equal to, if not worse than, most of the crimes death row inmates are convicted of committing. Their violence, she said, often comes in a rage, fueled by alcohol or drugs. State executions come with procedures and guidelines.

"Ours are premeditated," Carey said.

Just before 6 p.m., as Carey and the others looked across State Route 16 toward the prison, hundreds of long-winged gulls screeched, pacing the yard and darting low on the blue, charcoal and orange horizon.

To the opponents' right, seven law-enforcement officers stood near an expansive tree. Beyond them, a similar roped-off area labeled SUPPORTERS was staked off. No one was there.

Inside the prison, several members of Lisa DeCarr's family huddled together waiting to see Tompkins. They had waited decades for this day.

DeCarr was a 15-year-old high school student on March 24, 1983, when she went missing from her Tampa home. Tompkins told Barbara DeCarr, the girl's mother and his girlfriend, that she had run away.

It would be more than a year before authorities discovered where DeCarr had gone. She'd been buried with her pink bathrobe and jewelry under the porch. A state's witness would later testify that she had seen the girl struggling with Tompkins while he attempted to remove her clothing.

A jailhouse informant also told the jury that Tompkins had told him he'd killed DeCarr.

Because Tompkins had also been convicted of kidnapping and rape in two other cases that occurred after DeCarr's disappearance, and because of the nature of DeCarr's murder, the judge in October 1985 sentenced Tompkins to death.

Michelle Hayes wanted Tompkins to die for what he had done to her sister. Hayes wanted to push the button, pull the lever, whatever it took to end Tompkins' life in the way he had ended DeCarr's life.

She and other members of DeCarr's family almost got their wish several times over the years.

Gov. Bob Martinez signed death warrants twice in 1989, but courts granted stays for appeals. In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush signed another warrant. That was followed by another court-granted stay. Last October, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a fourth warrant that was followed by another stay.

In Tallahassee, 140 miles away, Crist confirmed there were no pending stays or appeals by about 5:50 p.m. Wednesday, said Erin Isaac, Crist's communications director.

"On the day of an execution, the governor is again briefed on and again reviews the facts of the case and the procedures of the execution," she said in an e-mail. "At this time and during the execution, Governor Crist had a framed photograph of Lisa DeCarr on his desk in the Governor's Office."

Crist, a Methodist and longtime supporter of the death penalty, privately reflected on his faith and prayed for the victim's family, Isaac said.

Meanwhile, Tompkins spent the day meeting with his mother and the prison chaplain and digesting his last meal, fried chicken and a banana split ice cream sundae.

In the opponents' area, Dan Schafer took it all in.

Earlier, during the bus trip, Schafer thought about how long he's opposed the death penalty. In the early 1970s, when no states were executing convicted murderers, he took that position in a ninth-grade debate at Ormond Beach Junior High School.

"I won easily," he recalled. "But, when the teacher asked how people felt about the issue of capital punishment, they still supported it."

Now a lawyer employed by the state, Schafer said he took a day off to fight the fight because he views the death penalty as a "square peg in a round hole -- it doesn't fit our system."

Some people convicted of murder are sentenced to death. Others are not.

It's more costly than simply sentencing a person to life in prison without parole, Schafer argued, and it's too often imposed on poor people who cannot afford the best representation.

Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and another regular at executions, said there is "a rising chorus" in opposition to capital punishment.

The latest Gallup Poll asking Americans whether they favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder showed 64 percent in favor. That is a drop from the 80 percent approval rating in the early 1990s, but still a better than 2-to-1 margin over those who say they oppose (30 percent).

Even still, Elliott credits Egitto and the Our Lady of Lourdes bus for bringing more awareness to the issue.

"They're a cornerstone and a key part of the movement in Florida," Elliott said.

Egitto is able to deliver his flock to Starke, parishioners say, because of his devotion to social justice.

"He's so committed you can feel it. You can't walk away," Our Lady of Lourdes member Toni Blankenship said. "All my life, I've been against (capital punishment). At my age (65), it's the old put-up-or-shut-up."

As 6 p.m. arrived, Egitto read a prayer for the family of Tompkins and his victims. But, later, in prayer, he spoke of a broken society.

"Killing is just a sign of our brokenness," he said. "God doesn't want us to be broken."

Part of the ritual involves ringing a bell loud enough, opponents say, for inmates in their cells hundreds of yards away, to hear.

Opponents took turns clanging a ball-peen hammer on the rectangular bell, so loud it made people wince. Some simply struck the bell; others yelled slogans like "Not in my name" and "Execute justice, not people."

They rang the bell 36 times. Then, they sang "Amazing Grace."

The gulls were off the ground but still circling over the prison grounds, squawking to one another in the darkening sky.

An hour later, television cameras lit a white tent sparsely decorated with a single, plain wooden podium. Small talk among reporters evaporated into the wind, which had picked up.

At 7:14 p.m., a phalanx of cars arrived, and, within a couple of minutes, Gretl Plessinger, director of communications for the Department of Corrections, stepped to the microphone to give the opening statement of a press conference.

"The sentence against inmate Wayne Tompkins has been carried out," she said. "He was pronounced dead at 6:32 this evening. What are your questions?"

After a bit of back-and-forth, the family of Lisa DeCarr stepped to the podium, her brother Harold holding a framed photo of her.

Michelle Hayes thanked the governor for pushing ahead with the execution, a quarter-century after her sister's death. Someone asked her about all those years of waiting, all those years of appeals and stays and wondering whether the execution would ever happen.

"Twenty-five years is way too long," she said. "It never seemed to stop."

Hayes said she believes the way Tompkins died -- lethal injection -- was humane, unlike the way he killed her sister. She had no regrets about wanting to watch him die.

"I hated him for so many years," she said. "I wanted to do it myself so many times."

Lisa DeCarr's mother, Barbara Wallace, stepped to the microphone and thanked "everyone who helped bring it to this point." She lowered her head in emotion when she was asked a question.

By this point, the Our Lady of Lourdes bus was halfway home. The sky, now black, was silent, as the gulls had gone.

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