By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — For Sean O’Brien, the knowledge isn’t merely theoretical that no human being — not even prison inmates convicted of the most horrific crimes — is beyond redemption.
O’Brien knows it deep within every fiber of his being, he told dozens of prison ministers gathered at a fall workshop Oct. 26.
And if the attorney who has devoted his life to fighting against the death penalty had any tiny doubt of the humanity inside even the so-called “worst” of men, it was shredded forever on April 9, 1996.
That day was one of many in O’Brien’s career as one of the few well-trained attorneys in the nation able and willing to take on the appeals of death row inmates. He was feverishly working on the case of Joseph Amrine, whom he would later exonerate, when he was told that Doyle Williams, scheduled to die that day at midnight on Missouri’s death row at Potosi, had called and was holding on line 2.
Williams was not a client, but the two had met six years earlier threw O’Brien’s work as head of the Missouri Capital Punishment Resource Center.
“I am ashamed to say what went through my mind as I debated whether to pick up the phone,” O’Brien told the prison ministers.
“What if he wants me to help with some desperate last-minute appeal?” he said. “I was already not going to make it home for dinner with my family. I ran the risk of losing critical time on the pressing cases of Amrine and others.
“Then again, what if he just wants to say good-bye?”
After three minutes, O’Brien picked up the phone for a call that would change his life.
No, Williams — sentenced to die for the murder of a physician whose office he robbed and of a witness to that crime — didn’t ask O’Brien to step into his case in his final hours. Nor was Williams even calling to say good-bye.
“Zein Isa needs your help,” Williams told the attorney.
“Zein Isa was a feeble, elderly prisoner who would not survive long enough to be executed,” O’Brien told the prison ministers. “He was too ill to leave his cell. Zein would live out the rest of his days in virtual solitary confinement.”
O’Brien said that Williams continued: “Do you think Warden Delo would let us have a wheelchair for Zein so someone could roll him to the dining room to eat with the rest of the guys?”
“I promised to look into it,” O’Brien said.
“We said our good-byes, and that was the last time I talked to my friend Doyle. I found out later that Doyle spent his last day calling people with requests on behalf of other prisoners,” he said.
“I had wasted three full minutes of his precious time absorbed in my own selfish concerns,” O’Brien said.
“As I hung up the phone, I experienced a profound awareness that no matter what each of us had previously done in our lives, at that moment Doyle Williams was a better human being than I.
“If a death row inmate can find redemption, maybe a lawyer can, too,” O’Brien said.
Williams isn’t an exception, but typical of death row inmates, O’Brien said.
And the fact that they can find redemption makes the work of prison ministers all the more vital, he said.
“They need attention. They need visits,” O’Brien said. “In the last day of a prisoner’s life, it is important that they know someone is fighting for their lives.”
It is also important for prisoners who go to their deaths to know that they are not beyond the redemption and mercy of a loving God and Savior. And that is the job of prison ministers, O’Brien said.
He told of the deeply religious Ricky Grubbs, executed in Missouri in 1992 despite having an IQ of 65.
“When I realized he was going to be executed, I had to ask what happened to his faith?” O’Brien said.
“He thought God’s answers to his prayers would be a stay of execution,” he said. “Someone needed to tell him about redemption and forgiveness.”
O’Brien told the prison ministers that he didn’t dedicate his career to fighting for the abolition of the death penalty because of the near certainty that innocent prisoners have been executed, and he has no doubt they have.
Nor does he fight because executing a prisoner is far more costly that keeping them in prison for life, and it certainly is, O’Brien said.
O’Brien fights for another reason.
“Nobody talks about how we are killing good people who don’t deserve to die, even if they killed another person,” he said.
He pointed to the Bible for examples of “people who have killed deliberately who have become instruments of God.”
They include Moses, David, and St. Paul.
He also pointed to St. Dismas, the “good thief” whom Jesus — himself a condemned man — had promised eternal life in paradise as they both were dying on crosses.
Then O’Brien told the story of Luis Ramirez and Napoleon Beazley, executed three years apart in Texas.
Before he was executed in 2005, Ramirez spent his last days writing letters to everyone he could think of, hoping to get word to the family of Beazley, who was executed in 2002.
Reading from one of Ramirez’s letters, O’Brien told how on the day Ramirez was sent to death row in Huntsville, Beazley came up to him and asked his name. When Ramirez told him, Beazley shouted so all could here, “There is a new man in here. His name is Luis Ramirez.”
Ramirez feared for his life after hearing that, O’Brien said. But that, according to Ramirez’s letters, was not what happened.
After dinner that night, Beazley dropped a brown paper bag into Ramirez’s cell. Inside the bag was soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, stamps, envelopes, paper, a pastry, a can of soda and a cup of Ramen noodles.
It was “the last thing I ever expected to find on death row, and everything I needed,” Ramirez wrote.
“I remember asking Napoleon where this came from. He told me that everyone pitched in. They knew I didn’t have anything, and it would be a while before I could get them,” Ramirez wrote.
“I asked him to find out who contributed. I wanted to pay them back,” Ramirez wrote.
“He said, ‘It’s not like that. Just remember the next time you see someone come here like you. You pitch in something.”
“This is more like my experience with men on death row,” O’Brien told the prison ministers.
“How could these men who showed so much humanity be the worst of the worst?” he asked. “I have yet to meet a man who is beyond redemption.”