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Moon rises as Ralph’s scarred days end


A few weeks ago my neighbor Jean left a message on my answering machine asking for prayers. She and her husband, Randy, would be gone a few days. They were going to Jefferson City, the state capital, and to Potosi, where Missouri’s maximum security prison is located. She said Ralph Davis was scheduled to die just after midnight.

Jean and Randy have a pretty cottage garden with old-fashioned flowers -- columbines, coral bells and poppies -- growing among fieldstone from the farm where Jean grew up. On one of our front yard visits about flowers, books and religion, Jean had asked me to pray for Ralph.

I had never before prayed for someone on death row but I wrote Ralph’s name on a small sheet of note paper, folded it into a tent and put it next to the tall candle in a glass jar next to my computer at work. It’s a reminder to pray for the people and causes my coworkers and I care about.

Randy, a criminal defense lawyer who works long hours, has represented many people who, like Ralph, have been charged with murder. Randy was appointed by a federal judge to prepare the habeas corpus petition for Ralph after he was convicted in state court and sentenced to death.

Randy spent a year investigating Ralph’s life. He talked for hours by phone with people close to Ralph. He traveled to the South to meet with Ralph’s mother, look at family photos, listen to the family history. In another town Randy sat on a cool concrete porch and heard Ralph’s aged father describe how the bullet wounds and knife scars that mark his body were not from the war from which he came home a hero but were inflicted by Ralph’s mother. In a Southern prison, Randy met Ralph’s brother, like Ralph, doing time for murder. The brother spoke of the horrors and humiliations he and Ralph had endured as children. “You have a long time to think in prison,” the brother said.

When Randy and Jean got back from their trip to Potosi, they talked with me in the front yard on one of Missouri’s gracious early summer evenings.

On Ralph’s last day, while last-minute appeals were being filed by attorneys in Kansas City, Mo., Randy sat in the high-ceilinged office of the governor in Jefferson City with three other lawyers and tried to find words to persuade the man at the head of the conference table, the governor’s counsel, to prevail upon the governor to extend clemency. They hit a road block. Earlier this year the governor had listened to the plea of Pope John Paul II on behalf of a man scheduled to die while the pope visited St. Louis. The governor, in that instance, granted clemency to a man convicted of murder -- a decision that was widely perceived as a blunder for a politically ambitious governor. There would be no such blunders this day.

“Are you depressed?” I asked Randy.

“No,” he answered. “I know how Ralph spent his last day, and he spent it well.”

In the days before his death, Ralph was confined in a small holding cell just paces away from the room in which he would be executed. The cell is diagonally divided by a floor-to-ceiling steel mesh screen.

“I was horrified when I walked into that room for the first time,” Randy said. “The steel mesh was so heavy, you could see only bits and pieces of Ralph’s face.”

Ralph had several visitors that day -- the prison chaplain and the minister from the church in Columbia, Mo., where Ralph and his wife had worshiped, Ralph’s 21-year-old son and his wife, and Randy and Jean.

The telephone rang continually. The guard at a desk on the visitors’ side of the room screened the calls. “Everyone in the holding cell heard the guard’s voice break when he announced the call from Ralph’s mother,” Randy said.

At one point the guard announced a call from Ralph’s lawyers in Kansas City. They had the governor’s counsel on their line. The news was not good, but the lawyers wanted the governor’s counsel to speak to Ralph. “What can I say to him?” Ralph asked.

Ralph spoke calmly, Randy recalled. “He talked about the hundred nations that have abolished the penalty of human death. He stated his own case, articulating the legal arguments as well as any lawyer. He listened to the replies and closed the conversation with, ‘I am sorry that we see things differently.’ ”

Randy said he had wondered whether it was right to take Jean to witness the execution, but he said he was glad she was there. “I wanted Ralph to know people cared, that his life meant something.”

Weeks later Jean was still troubled by the thought of the metal screen and the red line on the floor on the visitors’ side about a foot in front of the screen. She told me, “I know Ralph didn’t get a chance to hug his son goodbye. I just know it.”

In the small room for those who would witness the execution, there were nine chairs. Jean and Randy sat behind Ralph’s son and his wife. The two chaplains were there, too. When the metal blind opened, the witnesses could see Ralph on a gurney covered with a sheet. No tubes or monitoring apparatus were visible. Ralph mouthed, “I love you,” to his son and daughter-in-law. They answered, “We love you,” and, “We’ll see you again.” Ralph said, “I’m going to sleep now.”

Ralph was convicted of murdering his wife, the mother of his son and a daughter. The woman had said she was going to divorce him and take the children. She went to work that day and never returned. They found her car but not her body. Ralph said he didn’t remember.

The psychologist who assisted Randy in understanding the mystery of Ralph said that the painful events of Ralph’s childhood prevented him from integrating his personality. There were two Ralphs, the psychologist said, the adult modeled on his father and, in the background, the hurt and angry child, ready to explode.

Ralph’s son, who was about 9 when his mother disappeared, said he loved both his mother and his father. Several hours later in the day that began with Ralph’s execution, Randy and Jean spent time with Ralph’s son and his wife.

Then Randy and Jean drove to the farm where Jean grew up. They found a few stones to bring back to the city for their garden. They watched a full moon rise over a small lake.

It’s hard for me to see how Ralph’s death makes life in Missouri better or safer, how it rebalanced the scales of justice even for a moment. It seems important that there were people -- if only a few -- who were willing to be there for him his last day and for each other.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999