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A night spent waiting for death to come

Michigan City, Ind.

It’s 20 degrees outside. One hundred fifty people huddle together in pools of candlelight. They sing softly. They pray.

Red, blustery faces, stained with exhaustion and tears, look to one another for comfort and support. They bounce back and forth on their toes -- left to right and right to left. An aboriginal dance. They dance for warmth. Frozen toes begin to feel again.

A beep from a watch alarm and they know it is midnight. They kneel. Some cry out. Some weep in silence. The State of Indiana has just executed Gary Burris.

Burris was convicted of murder in the first degree for the 1980 killing of Kenneth Chambers, an Indianapolis cab driver. On a night much like this one, Chambers’ dead body lay frozen to the concrete, stripped of his clothing in a pool of his own blood. Now, 17 and a half years later, Burris, too, has died. An eye for an eye. Life for a life.

Outside the prison, the protesters are still shouting, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind! State murder is still murder! Execution is not the solution!” circling the parking lot with their signs in a quasi-militaristic march. Three young black women lead the chants from the center of the circle, their voices hoarse from hours of protest. They have traveled from Gary, Ind., this night to protest, just as they did July 18 when Tommie Smith was put to death at this same facility. That night it took the state one hour and 20 minutes to complete Smith’s execution. The crowd wonders how long it will take tonight.

Prison guards leer from their posts in towers, booths and squad cars, keeping close watch on the scene, while TV cameras zoom in on individual faces. Soon the guards will ban the protesters from using the washroom in the guard shack, forcing them to walk about two blocks to the Dunkin’ Donuts store if they have to go. “Are you joking?” shouts one of the protesters at this announcement. Another quips, “What do they think we’re going to do, start an insurrection from the stall?”

Indeed, the tension is high this night at the front gates of the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The likelihood of confrontation has been reduced by the smallness of the pro-execution faction -- only one makes his presence known. He stands apart holding a sign with Romans 13:1-4 on it: “Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.”

Soon he will get into a shouting match with a small group of protesters who will hurl Bible verses back at him until another group of protesters intervenes.

Among the protesters

Most of those here tonight are students and faculty from the University of Notre Dame about one hour east of the prison. The Notre Dame chapter of Amnesty International, along with the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School, organized the trip as well as a candlelight vigil back on the Notre Dame campus.

On the way to Michigan City, the students are nearly giddy with nervous excitement. In Amnesty International meetings they discuss death penalty issues all the time, but none has ever done this before. Only their leader, Sr. Kathleen Beatty, knows what to expect. The students have been briefed on the possibility of confrontation with pro-death penalty groups. “We will not say anything back to them,” Beatty instructs. “We will remain in prayerful silence.” Nodding their heads in agreement, they exchange wide-eyed looks.

They talk about the Burris case between songs of prayer and comfort. “Does everyone know ‘The Prayer of St. Francis’?” asks senior Megan Monahan from the front of the van. They begin singing, “Make me a channel of your peace/ Where there is hatred let me sow your love/ Where there is injury your pardon, Lord ... ”

Exiting the interstate, the group gets lost on the small streets of Michigan City. The van stops at Matey’s Restaurant and Beer. Club president Scott Leaman pauses before a giant neon sign with the words “Nautical But Nice,” leery of the crowd he will encounter inside. “Maybe we should have stopped somewhere else,” says one of the students still in the van.

It turns out the crowd inside is neither nautical nor nice as they reply to Leaman’s inquiry with comments like, “Why don’t you just wait until you see all the lights and electricity surge at midnight and follow it to its source?” Finally, the bartender tells Leaman which way to go, and the group is on its way once again.

“Do you think we should trust his directions?” asks Monahan. Fortunately, the directions are accurate, and the prison is soon in sight.

After 17 years and 27 judicial proceedings, the story of the crime has been pieced together as follows:

Burris and two companions, Emmett Merriweather and James Thompson, were out drinking heavily Jan. 29, 1980, a Tuesday night. They decided to call a cab with a view to robbing the driver. Allegedly, it was Burris’ plan.

Kenneth Chambers was the cabbie dispatched to pick them up. Burris, on parole for a previous crime, sat in the front seat, Merriweather and Thompson in the back. Only a couple of minutes into the ride, the men pulled guns on Chambers. They made him call his dispatcher and report that he had dropped off the clients at their desired location. Shoving Chambers into the back seat, they forced him to take off all his clothes but his socks. Then they robbed him of $40.

Fearful of getting caught, Burris decided it would be best to dispose of Chambers. The three took him to a vacant lot, pulled him out of the car, tied his hands behind his back with a rag, forced him to his knees and, as he begged for his life, fired a .38 caliber bullet into his temple at point-blank range. Merriweather testified that Burris fired the gun.

Burris then dropped off his companions and drove the taxi to a parking lot near his girlfriend’s apartment, where he stayed that night. An employee of the bar the killers had visited gave the police information that led them to Burris’ girlfriend’s place, where they found the .38 caliber pistol hidden inside a stereo speaker. Ballistics testing matched the bullet to Burris’ gun.

At separate trials, Thompson was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment and Merriweather’s charges were reduced -- he has now completed his 15-year prison term. Burris was given the death penalty.

The first time Burris was condemned to death, the sentence was repealed by an appellate court that deemed Burris’ legal counsel incompetent and ineffective during the sentencing phase of the trial. The lawyer, the court found, failed to introduce mitigating factors and closed his statements by reminding the jury of the heinousness and brutality of Burris’ crime. He also referred to Burris as a “snivelly little bastard.” A new sentencing hearing was granted, but not a new trial.

At the second sentencing, the jury could not agree on a proper fate for Burris, so the judge stepped in and sentenced him to death. Burris was not sentenced by a jury of his peers.

Because there is little doubt of Burris’ guilt, and all jurors in capital trials must pass the death qualification (which means they are not opposed to the death penalty in all cases), many speculated that Burris’ childhood was the factor that prevented the jurors’ agreement.

Abandoned in a trash can at birth, Burris was rescued by a pimp named Jewel Newland, proprietor of the M & J Social Club. Indianapolis police reports indicate that the club was raided several times a year for prostitution and gambling, as well as illegal alcohol and drug sales. Until he was 11, Burris lived above the club with Newland and his girlfriend.

While most children have chores such as cleaning their rooms or washing the dishes, Burris earned his allowance by knocking on doors to let clients know that their allotted time with prostitutes was up. As the client exited the room, Burris would offer him a towel.

School was not part of Burris’ daily routine. Records show he was absent 66 days from fifth grade. Also, he was known to be involved in much of the drug-running and -selling the club was busted for. Somehow, in all the police raids, no one ever noticed the small boy.

In addition to selling drugs, Burris was assigned the duty of injecting Newland’s girlfriend with the drugs of her choice because of her aversion to doing it herself. Not surprisingly, Burris became a heavy drug user himself and was reportedly under the influence of drugs and alcohol when he killed Kenneth Chambers. He said he retained no memory of the crime.

When Newland was sent to prison for manslaughter, the 11-year-old Burris was sent to live in a foster home. His foster mother recalls that when she asked Gary what he wanted for Christmas, the boy replied that he would like something that could tell him who he was, like a birth certificate.

He never got one. To this day, there is no legal proof of Burris’ age, place of birth or even that he was born at all.

At Burris’ final clemency hearing, all of these mitigating factors were brought up again and rejected by the board as being outweighed by the aggravating factors.

One difference between a clemency hearing and other types of proceedings, such as appeals, is that the family of the victim is allowed to speak freely about factors not directly related to the crime, such as how it has affected their lives. For the Chambers family, the pain and suffering of the murder was deepened by other tragedy. After being laid off from his job in the steel industry, Kenneth Chambers had begun driving taxicabs to provide for his eight-year-old son, his nine-year-old daughter and his wife, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Just two months later, he was murdered. Six years after that, his wife’s cancer would take her life as well, and the children were left in their grandmother’s care.

Now 25 and 26, the Chambers children have avoided the spotlight in the 17-year saga of Burris’ trial, appeals and execution. Their grandmother, June Chambers, and uncle, Brian Chambers, have normally been the ones to speak on behalf of the family to reporters, lawyers and juries.

At Burris’ final clemency hearing, however, a nephew of Kenneth Chambers, who happens to be an inmate at the Michigan City facility, gave testimony. He said that the Chambers family did not seek revenge. He said they did not want Gary Burris to be executed. These statements spurred a violent reaction from the rest of the family seated in the gallery, who shouted that the nephew did not speak for the Chambers family. They shouted that they wanted Burris dead.

When order was restored and the rest of the statements heard, the board announced it would recommend denying clemency in a 4-1 decision. Gov. Frank O’Bannon accepted the board’s recommendation and refused to interfere with execution proceedings.

Common misconception

It is dramatic events like this clemency hearing that lead to the common misconception that all victims’ families demand the execution of the killer. Movies and television nearly always portray victims’ families in front of and inside the courthouse, crying out for vengeance on the death of their loved one. In reality, the reaction of victims’ families is generally mixed. When survivors are angry and enraged, they may cry out for revenge, and understandably so, but many family members are able to overcome these natural reactions with a desire for forgiveness, or at least a desire to end the cycle of violence. Often this stems from a rooted belief in the sanctity of human life.

There are many victims’ groups across the country, such as Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in Indiana, that act as both a grief support system and a political mechanism against the death penalty.

One of the most commonly heard arguments in favor of capital punishment is that the victims’ families demand and deserve this type of “justice,” that society owes it to the families to remove the killer from the earth. It is assumed that families and loved ones want the murderer to suffer the same fate their loved one did.

“It’s simply not true,” says Walt Collins of South Bend, Ind., who lost his daughter and unborn grandchild in a murder 17 years ago. “I never wanted to see [the murderer] dead.” Recently, Collins’ daughter’s killer, who received a 60-year prison sentence, died in prison. Reporters phoned Collins for his reaction to the death and were surprised when he expressed sorrow instead of relief or joy.

June Chambers, her son Brian, and a granddaughter are in the prison when Burris is executed, slipped in the back door by prison guards. “No one knew we were there. I didn’t want all the cameras in our faces,” says Chambers. The family will sit in a small room down the hall from the death chamber and wait until death is pronounced. A prison guard reports Burris’ last words to them, “Hopefully, the Chambers family will find peace.”

“I hope he’s at peace, too,” June Chambers says. “I’m glad it’s over. I feel like justice has been served.”

Prayers for the Chambers family pass the lips of the protesters as they, too, wish the family peace. The three women who led the march have now moved close to the prison gates. At the stroke of midnight, hands held tightly, they raise their arms above their heads and scream out to the night, a cry of oneness with Burris and his pain, the cry he would surely have given when his lungs collapsed and his heart ceased to beat had his muscles not been paralyzed by the first drops of liquid in his veins.

The beep of the watch. No turning back now. The eyes of a young woman at the outside of the crowd glaze over, frozen in a stare of pain and terror. She falls to her knees. Staring down at mittens splattered with frozen tears, she begins a whispered anthem, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

And soon the whole crowd of them is singing, almost sighing the words, and it soothes them as a mother who wipes a tear away. The young woman looks up from her song and speaks, “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.”

Prison officials insert the IV into Burris’ arm. There is difficulty finding a vein. “Beam me up,” he says and waves goodbye to his lawyers before his face contorts and a loud moan escapes his lips. A snoring sound for 30 seconds. He gags, vomits. Fifty minutes later, it is official. Gary Burris is dead.

Outside the song continues. “Jesus, remember me.” Gary Burris is dead.

Tara Dix of St. Charles, Ill., is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. She will graduate in May with a BA in American studies. She will spend next year in Fullerton, Calif., as a volunteer for the Boys’ Hope/ Girls’ Hope Organization.

Note: You may access two of the organizations mentioned in the article here.

  • Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School: http://www3.nd.edu/~ndlaw/general.html
  • The Notre Dame chapter of Amnesty International: http://www.nd.edu/~peace/

The University of Alaska in Anchorage has compiled a large number of links pro and contra death penalty. This link is intended for backround reading and research purposes only, not endorsment; there is no connection between NCR or the above story and the University of Alaska Anchorage. http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/just/death/issues.html

National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 1998