God of Compassion,
You let your rain fall on the just and the unjust,
Expand and deepen our hearts so that we may love as You love,
Even those among us who have caused the greatest pain by taking life. For there is in our land a great cry for vengeance as we fill up death rows and kill the killers in the name of justice, in the name of peace.
—Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ
Gilbert Saavedra took a small photo from his jacket pocket: a smiling Patty Geddling, murdered in 1981 by Donald Beardslee. “She was my cousin. Tonight she’s getting justice.”
Geddling and Stacey Benjamin were murdered in 1981 by Donald Beardslee, now 61, while he was on parole for a 1969 murder. Beardslee, administered a lethal combination of diuent, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, was pronounced dead at 12:29 a.m. Wednesday. He had lost all legal appeals; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied him clemency.
“He was found guilty by a jury of his peers. Justice is justice,” said an emotional Saavedra, who walked with a few family members among the crowd that organizers estimated at about 500 people. They gathered at the San Quentin gates to pray, meditate, cry and speak out against “state-sanctioned killing.”
Saavedra wanted others to understand his pain. “My cousin never got to see her children grow. Never got to see her grandchildren. Patty—the victims have rights too.”
Death penalty foes, brought together by the Bay Area Anti-Death Penalty Coalition, addressed the crowd that swelled as midnight drew near, despite the icy cold. “We know that killing people here doesn’t bring anyone back,” said Sujal Parikh, of the Berkeley chapter of the Campaign to end the Death Penalty. A Hindu, Parikh said his faith teaches that non-violence is the highest creed.
“All the ills of society get loaded down on this person (Beardslee) and they stop his heart,” said Wilson Riles, former Oakland City Councilmember, and former Western Region director of the American Friends Service Committee. Death, he said, is something that should be left to a higher power. “How can one man do the act of God? It shouldn’t be that way.”
Former inmate Dorsey Nunn, organizer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, introduced the speakers. He asked, “Ask yourself at five minutes past 12—will you be any safer?”
Speakers, including State Assemblymembers Sally Lieber, (D-Mountain View), and Mark Leno, (D-San Francisco), condemned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for refusing to grant Beardslee clemency.
Talya Brott, 11, of Oakland, stood in the crowd listening and also blamed the governor. “I don’t think the death penalty is right,” she said. “Killing people who kill is contradicting themselves. Arnold Schwarzenegger can stop that right now.” If she had a chance, Talya said she would ask the governor, “What are you getting out of killing this person who is mentally impaired. You could stop it!”
One of the defenses lawyers invoked in appeals that were denied is that Beardslee’s brain damage—he was said to have been impaired since birth, then brain damaged again in two separate accidents—was not considered and that, with modern medical equipment, the extent of the impairment could be proven.
In a statement denying clemency, however, the governor had asserted earlier in the day, “We are not dealing here with a man who is so generally affected by his impairment that he cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.”
While some called for a moratorium on the death penalty until the newly constituted California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice could report on the fairness and effectiveness of California’s death penalty, many in the crowd opposed it under any circumstances.
Faye Butler, 75, of Fremont, has come to all 11 vigils with Pax Christi since 1992. “I’m not at all for vengeance. Killing doesn’t stop killing; it continues the cycle of violence,” she said.
Sally Hindman of the Berkeley Friends Meeting believes similarly. “Killing people is wrong,” she said, “especially killing to make amends for killing.”
Beardslee was one of 640 people on California’s death row, the largest in the nation.
For some, opposing the death penalty may be harder than others. Lee and Murray Richardson lost their 10-year-old son to murder. They spoke earlier in the evening at a prayer vigil at Saint John’s Catholic Church in El Cerrito.
“First there was tremendous anger, then bewilderment,” Murray Richardson said. The words of St. John’s pastor Fr. John Maxwell helped him. “I began to open my heart,” he said. The couple has come to believe that “the state is as wrong for killing murderers as it is for murderers to kill.” The Richardsons work with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation.
Hal Carlstad, 79, of Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship’s Social Justice Committee, chose another way to express his opposition to the death penalty. Along with Fr. Louis Vitale of St. Boniface Catholic Church in San Francisco, and three others, he was arrested blocking the gate at San Quentin on Monday. Carlstad spent the night in jail; charges were dropped Tuesday.
The experience was instructive, he said in an interview Wednesday. His cellmate was a 24-year-old man whose father was in prison. The young man had never held a job and has a number of arrests for theft.
“The state needs to spend its funds on programs for people like him and not on executions,” Carlstad said.
As the 12:01 a.m. Wednesday execution time drew near, the crowd at the San Quentin gates, continuously videotaped by prison officials atop a nearby roof, became still. The saddened voice of Father Bruce Bramlett, a San Quentin spiritual advisor, came over the loud speaker. “There is no more time to teach; there is no more time to protest. It is time to pray. Brothers and sisters, let us hold each other tight.”