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Death for death? A family asks mercy for a son

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Oklahoma City

Unless a miracle happens, Mark Andrew Fowler, the well-loved child of Catholic parents and the nephew of a Tulsa priest, will die by lethal injection on Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. He is fifth on the list of eight executions scheduled this month in Oklahoma, where, as the new year began, 138 were on death row.

Although polls show that the majority of Oklahomans support the death penalty, calls for a moratorium have been gaining steam, fueled by the record high numbers of executions -- two a week -- slated for the beginning of the new year.

Some family members of victims applaud the executions as long overdue, but the high number occurring this month in Oklahoma has prompted death penalty foes around the country to target the state. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the state with a population six times smaller than Texas has become the leading state in executions per capita. On Jan. 4, the Rev. Jesse Jackson attended a rally in Oklahoma City to show support for a bill before the state legislature calling for a one-year moratorium on executions.

The nephew of Fr. Gregory Gier, rector at Tulsa’s Holy Family Cathedral, Fowler has received extensive support from the two dioceses of Oklahoma, a state that is 4 percent Catholic. Last June Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran of the Oklahoma archdiocese asked for a five-year moratorium on executions in Oklahoma. He invited “all Catholics” to join him in committing themselves “to pursuing justice without vengeance.”

Beltran has long had a relationship with Jim and Ann Fowler, father and stepmother of Mark Fowler and parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Oklahoma City. Beltran, as bishop of Tulsa, celebrated the funeral service for Mark Fowler’s mother, Caroline Fowler, after her death from cancer in 1980, a loss family members associate with Mark’s descent into crime.

In December, Bishop Edward J. Slattery of the Tulsa diocese joined Beltran’s call for a five-year moratorium in an open letter to Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and citizens of the state.

Fowler’s story has galvanized Oklahoma’s Catholics opposed to the death penalty, providing them with a painfully intimate look at what that punishment means for a Catholic family. Slattery in mid-December visited with Fowler on death row for 45 minutes. Of that meeting, Slattery said, “After I was with him for five minutes, it was no longer on my mind that he was a criminal.”

The saga has also thrown into high relief tensions among Catholics over the death penalty. Gov. Keating is a Catholic, as are two of the four members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board who, on Jan. 3, decided without deliberation that Fowler’s life would not be spared.

In a letter responding to Slattery’s appeal for a moratorium, Keating, a Catholic, reiterated his support for “judicious use of capital punishment.” “Good people of faith will continue to differ sincerely on this issue,” he wrote.

It is doubtful, therefore, that these recent stirrings of anti-death penalty sentiment in Oklahoma will alter Fowler’s fate.

Clemency hearing

On Jan. 3, Mark Fowler, age 35, had 20 minutes to plead for his life. The death row inmate, convicted of a felony murder for his role in a triple homicide, was the last to speak at his clemency hearing before the Pardon and Parole Board. His court appeals exhausted, the hearing, held at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, was Fowler’s final recourse before execution.

In a phone interview with NCR the day before the hearing, Fowler admitted that he was “kinda stressed out.” He wondered what he could say to the board that would “open their minds to what they were doing” and convince them to spare his life. He knew he was out of touch with “how people are feeling out there in the world.”

Dyslexic, he rehearsed his statement again and again. He didn’t want to sound like he was reading it. It took him a week just to write the first paragraph.

Clemency hearings, not unlike a city council meeting, have their protocol. Forty minutes for the advocates of clemency. Forty for advocates of execution. Twenty for the defendant.

Fowler, who remained in a holding cell, never heard the arguments for or against his death. After both sides had spoken, guards ushered the shackled, slightly balding man with thick glasses into the room and placed him before a microphone six feet in front of the four-member board.

“I am totally sorry for my role in this tragedy,” he said. “I never ever planned to be part of a murder.”

“Would you please spare my life? I never killed those people. I never killed those people.”

The Pardon and Parole Board members, one of whom doodled during some of the proceedings, never left the room to consider the request before them. The board has not granted clemency since 1966. With stunning rapidity, and despite the strong outpouring of support for Fowler, they cast their votes. Clemency denied, 4-0.

Among those who begged the board to spare Mark Fowler’s life were the bishops Beltran and Slattery. They spoke before a packed room. According to Gier, 221 death penalty opponents, many of them Catholics from the Tulsa diocese, attended Fowler’s clemency hearing. Because of space constraints, 60 actually heard the proceedings while 161 remained outside the prison gates, Gier said.

“You have in your hands today the power of life or death,” Beltran told the board. “I beg you to choose life. Life is a gift from God … Our Lord Jesus, himself a victim of the death penalty, forgave his oppressors.”

But Assistant Attorney General Sandy Howard urged the board to proceed with the execution as the jury had decreed. “Oklahoma has decided to have the death penalty,” she reminded them. “It is not for you to decide what the law should be. You are not the legislature.

“We can all forgive Mark Fowler, but that does not mean we can reduce his sentence.”

Jim Fowler, father of the inmate, beseeched the board for the life of his son. He urged them to “take a courageous step.”

“I ask you to give him the opportunity to live.”

Cancer struck

In the early years, Jim Fowler’s life flowed along a familiar course for a Catholic boy from Oklahoma. He graduated from Bishop John Carroll High School, fought in the Korean War and got a business degree from Oklahoma City University. He married Carolyn Gier, his high school sweetheart, and after 12 childless years, they adopted two infant boys through Catholic Charities: James Gregory in February of 1963 and Mark Andrew in May of 1965.

The family seemed to have a “Leave It To Beaver” existence. Carolyn doted on the boys and during nightly homework sessions steered Mark through problems related to his dyslexia. With the boys involved in Cub Scouts, Jim became a leader. In 1975, when Mark was 10, cancer struck Carolyn. She died five years later. Jim remarried six months after her death.

While Carolyn was ill, attention shifted from the children to her, Jim Fowler said. “When you have a tragedy in the family, all routine goes by the wayside.”

In September of 1986, four months after Mark was convicted, the Fowler family faced another tragedy. Jim Fowler’s 82-year-old mother, Anne Laura Fowler, was raped and murdered at her home in Oklahoma City. Robert Lee Miller Jr. was convicted of the crime and given a death sentence but was freed 10 years later based on DNA evidence.

Ronnie Lott, whose DNA matches that found at the scene, stands currently accused. Jim Fowler has agreed to speak against the death penalty for Lott.

“I don’t think my mother is hollering down for me to bring death on her killer.”

The experience of convicting the wrong man in Fowler’s mother’s murder has made members of the Fowler family even more skeptical of the death penalty process. “Now the same state is telling me it has the integrity to kill my nephew,” Gier told Tulsa World last year. “Any human system has holes in it.”

In 1990, Jim Fowler’s oldest son, James Gregory, was killed in an automobile accident. Fowler said the death of his son deepened his empathy for the families of the IGA victims. “Before a child dies you can only imagine the heartache and pain.”

Jim Rowan, Mark Fowler’s trial attorney, said his client had had a “fairly normal childhood. What set him off was his mother dying of cancer.” In order to spare Mark having to see the decline of his mother, the family sent him to live with Gier, his uncle. While there, Fowler stole from the Poor Box of his uncle’s parish to pay for the trip to his mother’s funeral and arrived in Oklahoma in time for the wake, Rowan said.

More robberies followed, and Fowler had a stint in juvenile detention. His high school education ended at ninth grade. By the age of 18, he had a felony conviction for oral sodomy and an 18-month sentence.

Attorney Rowan said Fowler did not commit sodomy, which occurred in juvenile detention among a group of nine youths incarcerated in the same cell. According to Rowan, Fowler told the victim, “You better go along with it.” The court decreed that those words made Fowler complicit in the act. The resulting felony conviction would haunt him in a far more serious future trial.

That night at the IGA

On July 3, 1985, in the early hours of the morning, Fowler and his associate, Billy Ray Fox, entered Wynn’s IGA grocery in Edmond, Okla. Both were 20 and high on drugs. “It was the Fourth of July weekend,” Rowan said, “and they were taking several kinds of uppers and downers.” When they left the store, $1,500 in checks and cash was missing, and three men, a store manager and two clerks lay dead in the back room, their blood pooling on the floor. Rick Cast, 33, and Chumpon Chaowasin, 44, had been shot in the head, and John Barrier, 27, had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death.

Fox initially admitted to a friend, Chris Glazner, that he committed the murders. Later, in a confession to police, he laid the blame on Fowler. Fowler, who never denied his part in the robbery, pointed to Fox as the killer.

The deaths of Cast and Barrier stunned the town of Edmond, a relatively affluent community on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. At Fowler’s clemency hearing, Clyde Kemper, Cast’s friend, described the two victims as “fixtures in the community.” Barrier loved children. Cast aspired to freelance photography.

Chaowasin was a Taiwanese exchange student at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Members of the Cast and Barrier families said the brutal murders of these two men led to other deaths. Jim Cast, brother of Rick, said his mother crawled into bed and withered away after the murder. She waited for the executions of her son’s killers “year after year until she became a sickly skeleton.” Cast said, “I would like to be the pope and just overflow with forgiveness and generosity, but in my heart I can’t forgive these two boys. After the execution, maybe I can start to forgive them.”

Lt. Steven B. Thompson, of the Edmond Police Department, was among those who submitted letters to the Pardon and Parole Board requesting Fowler’s execution. Thompson, a friend of Barrier and a party to the homicide investigation, blamed Fox and Fowler for altering his hometown. They “single handedly started the process that has brought many of [Edmond’s] citizens to the point of paranoia that they live in today,” he said.

Rowan, Fowler’s attorney, petitioned to have his client’s case severed from Fox’s. A severance, Rowan believed, would have allowed him to prove that Fox had a “meaner agenda” than Fowler and was therefore more capable of the murder. Fox, a former IGA employee, had tried to steal money and been fired from the store several months prior to the homicide.

The cases, however, were not severed, and evidence that could have been used in separate trials was forbidden.

According to a source close to the case, testimony from forensic expert Joyce Gilchrist “puts Fowler in the back room.” Gilchrist used visual hair analysis, a method that Janet Chesley, Fowler’s appellate attorney, said is “unreliable.”

In an interview with Tulsa World, that city’s daily newspaper, Gier said he questions the fairness of the process. “I have never approached a lawyer saying, ‘Get Mark off and out of jail,’ ” Gier said. “But I say there has not been adequate proof or significant integrity in the trial to justify taking his life.

“I’m not happy my nephew was involved in these murders. At the same time, to reduce society to the level of this act is not redeeming to society. The execution is reducing society to a like act. It makes us all victims.”

Lethal injection

Execution by lethal injection was developed in Oklahoma by anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch. In 1977, Oklahoma signed the world’s first lethal injection statute. Today, the method is the preferred form of capital punishment in the United States. If lethal injection is ever declared unconstitutional, Oklahoma authorizes death by electric chair or firing squad.

If all goes “well,” execution by lethal injection takes approximately 30 minutes. The prisoner is strapped to a gurney. The site in each arm where an intravenous line will be inserted is carefully swabbed with alcohol to prevent infection. If the inmate was a heavy drug user, a “good” vein can be hard to find, and in some instances, prisoners have assisted with the search.

Three executioners are required. Each injects into the intravenous lines one of the three drugs used: Sodium thiopental to cause unconsciousness. Pancuronium bromide to stop respiration and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

According to Lee Mann, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, where Fowler is an inmate, executioners are paid $300 each per execution. Anonymity is part of their contract, and their identities are known only to the former warden who hired them.

“Even we don’t know who they are,” Mann said. She is confident that those hired could “carry out the task with dignity” and that no one is doing this “for the sake of a vendetta.” Mann described McAlester’s executioners as “very professional.”

In addition to the executioners, a correctional official, a chaplain and a physician to verify the death are allowed in the death chamber, but no one else.

Gier, although he has asked prison officials for clearance, will not be allowed to anoint his nephew or give him Communion before he dies.

The chaplain, who is “trained for the job,” comforts the prisoner with readings of his or her choice, Mann said.

Moments before the lethal drugs are injected into the inmate, the venetian blinds in the death chamber are raised for “the viewing.” Witnesses for the victim and the defendant, kept in separate chambers and not visible to one another, can watch the execution through windows of one-way glass.

The inmate is allowed seven witnesses. According to Gier, Fowler was initially reluctant to ask his family to attend. “He didn’t want us to have to go through that,” Gier said.

“He asked me, ‘How do you invite someone to your execution?’ I suggested saying that you don’t want to die alone. We are willing to be there for you, and you need us,” Gier told the Tulsa World.

“There will be people there looking at you with hate. You need somebody in the room to look at and know loves you. And we need to do that and be there.”

Not much sleep

Fowler does not get much sleep these days. Maybe three or four hours a night. “I kind of lost interest in sleeping” he said and then with a chuckle adds, “I’ll get plenty of that pretty soon.” After 14-and-a-half years on death row, he describes his life as just “existing. There’s no school, no jobs.” He and his cellmate, like other inmates on death row, are locked down 23 hours a day for five days a week and 24 hours for the other two days. His only break from the regimen is weekly Mass, which he and four or five other Catholics on death row attend in shackles.

The guards on the unit “keep their distance because they know what your fate is,” Fowler said. He knows he can never be personal with them and he finds the “zero physical contact” regulation of the prison very difficult.

Oklahoma’s death row no-contact policy allows only communication through phone hook-ups on opposite sides of the glass.

Once, years ago, Fowler said, the prison let his dad give him a hug and that was “kind of unnerving” because he hadn’t been touched in so long.

“You have to make a conscious effort to keep your head,” he said. And not everyone can. On his unit, there is an inmate who came in the same time Fowler did. “He’s a complete nut now. He floods his cell and lies on the floor and acts like he is swimming.

“They’re quite a few who have snapped. It wouldn’t take much to lose it; but I don’t think I have ever come close.”

The death penalty, he believes, “will never work,” and he hopes that people “will get over it someday. … It is insignificant to a politician whether I am innocent or not,” he said.

Fowler knows the protocol that precedes his execution very well. A week before he is executed, they will move him into a cell by himself. Twenty-four hours before his execution, he will be moved to the cell closest to the death chamber, and two guards will sit outside his door. He will get “a full body x-ray” just to make sure he hasn’t ingested something lethal to preempt the state’s execution.

Fowler says he is not suicidal nor is he afraid. “I’m ready to go. I’m tired of this. Everyone knows they’re going to die, but I’m not around family or friends. For 15 years, I’ve been around people who want to kill me. I’m not going to miss this place at all.”

He worries, however, about how his death will affect his father. “My dad is not exactly young,” he said. At his clemency hearing, Fowler asked the board to spare his life “for the sake of my father. I’ve put him through enough.”

Death row inmates at McAlester are typically allowed one phone call a week. A month before his execution date, Fowler said prison officials gave him his 30-day notice. “They told me, ‘Make all the phone calls you want now.’ ” And Fowler does.

Every morning he calls his father and every evening Gier, his uncle.

The imminent death of his son has prompted Jim Fowler to reflect on their early days together.

When the “boys were small,” Jim Fowler had a nightly ritual. He didn’t “pull up the covers or tuck them into bed.”

He would “just touch each one on the forehead and say, ‘I love you.’ ” The day before Fowler’s clemency hearing, he heard his father say those words often throughout their morning phone conversation. At least 12 or 15 times in the course of three minutes.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001