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David Paul Hammer and Mercy Sr. Camille D’Arienzo looked at each other, phones in hand, through bulletproof glass at the Federal Prison at Terre Haute, Ind.

“Well, newest Catholic in Terre Haute, how does it feel to be part of our family?” she asked.

The previous day, Oct. 27, Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein had come to the prison to receive Hammer into the church, give him his first Holy Communion and confirm him.

It was the first Mass in memory to be offered in the death row unit at the prison. And it occurred just weeks before Hammer’s scheduled execution date. While executions under state laws have jumped significantly in recent years, Hammer was to become Nov. 15 the first inmate executed under federal law in 35 years until a federal judge intervened Nov. 1, giving him three months to prepare his next appeal.

Hammer, in his own words, lived a sordid life. He’s spent more than 22 of his 42 years in jail and is on federal death row for the 1996 killing of his federal prison cellmate, Andrew Marti.

The cellblock in Terre Haute was recently converted into a new death row facility for condemned federal prisoners.

D’Arienzo, president of the Brooklyn Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy and a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is also founder of the Cherish Life Circle, an anti-death penalty movement in which people sign a sworn statement saying that should they be murdered they do not want the killer executed.

Opposition to capital punishment among Catholics may be growing because of the work of people such as D’Arienzo and priests and bishops like Buechlein, who, with their close association with those facing death, keep teaching that killing by the state in the name of justice merely compounds the injustice.

D’Arienzo has been Hammer’s spiritual adviser for two years. She said that a few months ago, Hammer had dismissed previous appeals and requested a speedy execution day. “The prospect of life in prison without parole had become insufferable. Death certainly would be a release from the relentless isolation of death row and confinement in a 6-feet-by-10-feet cell,” she said.

Then Hammer changed his mind. He is now seeking clemency from President Clinton. In an interview with the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, he explained he was asking for clemency because he believes that not fighting against his execution would make it easier for the federal government to carry out executions of others on death row.

In federal cases, only the president has power to pardon or grant a moratorium.

D’Arienzo is pleading for support. To request a commutation of the death sentence of David Paul Hammer, 224507-077, send letters to President Clinton in care of Atty. Ron Travis, 161 W. 3rd St., Williamsport PA 17701. Fax: 570-323-8781.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000