SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- In his last hours on Earth, California death row inmate Thomas Thompson fought to stay alive or, failing that, to be with his spiritual adviser until the last moments.
He lost the first battle but won a compromise on the second. Until about 20 minutes before midnight, officials let Thompson and the Rev. Margaret Harrell stay in adjacent cells. Later, he was able to gaze at her face through the glass windows of San Quentin State Prison's death chamber. Normally, the state maintains that such visits with spiritual advisers pose too much of a safety risk.
Last week, the issue went before the California Supreme Court, where Harrell's attorneys argued that spiritual advisers should be removed only at the last feasible moment before executions, which in California can take place anytime after midnight. State attorneys pushed for a separation point of 45 minutes before the scheduled execution. A decision is expected within 90 days.
Advocates for prisoners find the state's argument hard to believe.
''What are they going to do, hit someone with a Bible or the Quran or something?'' asks Robert Bryan, a defense attorney who represents several death row inmates.
Victim advocates find the debate ironic.
''Do they also feel that the victims that they murdered should have a priest there with them, or a spiritual adviser?'' demands Janice Keson, whose daughter, Darlene Paris, was beaten and stabbed to death in 1990. ''I'm sure that my daughter, as she cried out, 'Oh God, help me,' I'm sure that she would have loved to have had something like that.''
The problem with allowing spiritual advisers to stay past 6 p.m., the point where other visitors are ushered out, is that it means an outsider is present as the execution team begins preparations, says San Quentin spokesman Lt. Vernell Crittendon.
''Those folks turn around, and they now know the identity of the individuals carrying out the ultimate punishment on behalf of the citizens of California. And that may cause some concern,'' said Crittendon.
The state-employed prison chaplain may remain longer, if the inmate so requests. However, even the official chaplain must leave well before the prisoner is led into the death chamber.
Death row inmates take into prison their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, but there is no national standard for access to spiritual advisers, said Robert Lynn, immediate past president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.
The group would like a uniform policy with ''as much humane treatment as possible toward the condemned,'' Lynn said.
A survey published in 1999 found 18 states allow the spiritual adviser to the door of the death chamber; the degree of separation required varies state to state.
Connecticut, for instance, allowed visits up to 30 minutes before the execution; Georgia required a 3-hour separation. In Arizona, the prisoner and spiritual adviser were separated by metal mesh and Plexiglas. A few states, including Oklahoma and Texas, allow prison chaplains to be with inmates at the moment of execution by lethal injection.
''As a general proposition, we found that jurisdictions in the South -- and the South has the reputation of being the toughest with respect to the death penalty and actually executing people -- tended to have much more permissive policies, perhaps because of the attitude they have to religion in the South,'' said James Acker, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany who supervised the survey published in Contemporary Justice Review.
The case before the California Supreme Court stems from the 1996 execution of triple-murderer Keith Daniel Williams. Like Thompson, he had chosen Harrell, a United Church of Christ minister who visits several men on death row, as his spiritual adviser. Because Harrell is not the official prison chaplain, the warden ordered her removed from the death watch area at 6 p.m., six hours before the scheduled execution.
A judge ruled Harrell could stay until 11:15 p.m. or until final preparations for taking Williams to the execution chamber were about to begin, whichever was later, said Jack Moynihan, Harrell's attorney. Harrell does not give interviews to protect inmates' privacy.
The state interpreted that as no later than 11:15 p.m.; Moynihan sees it as no earlier than 11:15 and possibly quite a bit later. Although executions are generally thought of as being scheduled at 12:01 a.m., they can take place at any time during the next 24 hours.
The issue prompted another court fight in August 1997, when Thompson was scheduled for execution. A judge rejected a state request to remove Harrell at 6 p.m., although the issue became moot after Thompson got a last-minute reprieve.
In July 1998, Thompson's second execution date, the state wanted Harrell out of the chamber before 11:15, because she was also designated as one of Thompson's witnesses. Thompson sued and Harrell was allowed to stay until about 20 minutes to midnight, locked in an adjoining cell, Moynihan said. The cells touch at one corner and Thompson and Harrell could ''reach through the bars and speak, and hold each other's hands.''
Defense attorney Bryan says inmates generally are reluctant to talk about what will happen if they lose their appeal. But one of his clients told him ''it would be very meaningful for him to hear the word of God at that final moment.'' Bryan said. ''I see no rhyme or reason for people to be deprived of this.''
End Adv for Friday, Jan. 12
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