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Death row inspiration


The ripple effect of NCR’s immensely popular “Jesus 2000” art competition continues to remind us of just how supernatural the imagination is and how art can energize social action.

The brainchild of former editor Michael Farrell, the millennium event drew 1,678 submissions by 1,004 artists in 19 countries -- all reminders of the vital presence of Jesus today. They were not intended to reflect the Jesus of yesterday. Farrell hoped that they would point to the future. Now, nearly a year later, 60 works, representing the best, are still making their way around the United States.

“They may be prophetic of where and how Christianity will flourish in the next millennium or two,” Farrell said.

When I arrived at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union to view the exhibit, I was taken by the sight of a weeping African-American woman who was attempting to touch the face of a black man depicted in a sensitive watercolor titled “Christ as Poor, Black, Death Row Inmate.” A white woman gently led her away to a chair where she could weep until she composed herself.

The black woman was Evelyn Williams Tabb, the sister of Robert Williams, the death row inmate. The white woman was Marylyn Felion, the artist who did the work and whose life was changed by the convicted murderer.

Robert Williams was the oldest of seven children born into poverty in 1936. He was the son of a man who drank his paycheck and who regularly beat his wife bloody. To support her children, Robert’s mother worked as a hooker, often bringing him with her. When he told his father, the drunken parent began beating Robert. The mother fled; the other children were removed from the home. Robert remained behind and became a high school dropout. He eventually entered the military, where he earned his general equivalency diploma, his GED.

After discharge, he ended up in Lincoln, Neb., where he got into drinking and drugs. He married and, although he had never physically abused a woman, he was emotionally abusive to her. In time, the combination of upbringing and addictions pushed him over the edge. In Marilyn’s words, “He became a wild man.”

During a visit to two female friends, he lost it completely. Armed with a gun, he killed them both and raped one of them. Later, he raped and shot a third woman and, during an attempted getaway to Chicago, he killed a farmwoman. Over 20 years ago, he was tracked down, tried, convicted and placed on Nebraska’s death row.

He died in the electric chair Dec. 7, 1997. He was 61 years old.

Capital punishment has been abandoned by every other developed nation in the West. But it is still booming in America. More Americans were executed in America in 1999 than any year since 1952. In the past decade, the execution rate has risen 800 percent. Yet, even as executions soar, the days of the death penalty are numbered. Inexorable social forces are pulling us to the eventual abolition of this brutal practice.

Nebraska is relatively mild on capital punishment. Only seven men have been executed since 1930. Texas, the execution capital of the nation, executed 38 in 2000 alone. The assembly line killing has been slowed because the 39th victim is retarded. His case is on appeal.

If capital punishment retards crime, Texas should be the safest place in the world. However, a recent study by The New York Times found that the murder rates in states that had the death penalty is no lower than those that did not.

Nationwide, since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, nearly 700 have been executed. Eighty-nine others awaiting execution managed to prove that they were wrongly convicted. Thirty-eight states still allow the death penalty, but 13 bar execution of the mentally retarded.

From 1930 to 1995, the U.S. executed 4,291 people -- the population of a small town. Meanwhile, over 3,600 people are on death row.

Marylyn Felion was born in Northern California. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father, an itinerant barber and sawyer, married again to a woman who physically abused Marylyn for years. She finally escaped to a boarding school conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. She entered the congregation in 1955 and remained for 14 years. “I thank God every day for the 14 years I spent in the convent,” she said. She remains an active Mercy associate.

During the 1980s, she worked in the Omaha public school system as a behavioral interventionist. She also became involved in a Witness for Peace program that led her to go to Nicaragua in 1987. After five months, she became dangerously ill and had to return to Omaha.

She is presently working at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen and selling her watercolors, while living modestly with a dog and cat.

Marylyn came into contact with Robert after she visited the Nebraska prison where he would be executed in order to be part of an anti-death penalty demonstration. Another murderer and rapist, Willi Otey, was put to death. Outside the prison, beer-swilling demonstrators were chanting, “Fry him! Fry him!” While she understood the seriousness of Otey’s crime, she was devastated by what she saw and heard.

Not long after, she learned of Robert and the fact that his execution had been stayed while some legal technicalities were settled. She wrote to him. The correspondence lasted over two years before she made any attempt to visit him, although he was only an hour’s drive away.

She turned to her Mercy sisters and inquired as to whether they had any prison chaplain ministries that would permit visiting with a measure of privilege. “No,” they said, “but we can make one up.” And they did.

Marylyn drove to Lincoln and visited several days each week for a 33-day period. Her chaplain status permitted a private visit in the glass-windowed room. Marylyn listened to a man who had come to grips with the horror and brutality of his actions. “He was deeply remorseful and repentant,” she said. “He had dealt with the brutality of his early life by exploding. I had imploded, but 14 years of convent life and six years of therapy changed my anger.

“Robert was simply not the same man he was 20 years ago,” she continued. “He had become a Christian, although he never embraced any formal religion. He was a witness to what the power of God can do in the soul of a human being.”

Not long before he was executed, Robert asked Marylyn to accompany him to the death chamber, located ironically in the prison’s hospital wing. She agreed. Ten days before his death, the new friends exchanged wedding vows in a ceremony that involved just the two of them.

Robert became so deeply at peace at the prospect of his own death that he actually overslept on the day of his killing. Minutes before his death, he forgave the misnamed “Pardons Board” and all those arrayed against him, including the politicians who garnered votes with a pro-life political platform that did not embrace opposing capital punishment.

Marylyn walked behind him to the death chamber. She read a paraphrased version of the Prayer of St. Francis: “Robert, our God has made you an instrument of God’s peace. Where there is hatred ... ”

On the crowded elevator, he sang “I am on the mountain top!”

Together, holding hands, they sang verses of “Oh, Freedom.” (Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free!”) Even the guards who escorted him began to weep. He was almost impatient for the switch that would send him home.

Marylyn remains active in the anti-capital punishment movement. She is winning. Over 2 million people from 128 countries have signed anti-capital punishment petitions. John Paul II views it as part of “the culture of death.” He has called for the practice to be “abolished completely.” The American bishops have asked for its abolition. Recently, President Clinton granted a stay of execution to one of 20 men on death row in the federal prison system -- 17 of them minorities.

Meanwhile, Felion continues her efforts to halt this awful, self-destructive practice. She is winning with prayer, politics -- and painting.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. He is at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001