This horror has to stop.’ Spiritual advisers to death row inmates decry recent wave of federal executions
Yusuf Nur, the spiritual adviser for Dustin Higgs, holds a Quran while he talks about his experiences with Higgs, outside the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on January 15, 2021.
By Dakin Andone, CNN
Updated 6:54 AM ET, Wed March 10, 2021
(CNN) — It wasn’t until Yusuf Nur was inside the execution chamber, standing next to a condemned man strapped to a gurney, that he understood why he’d been asked to be present.
The inmate, Orlando Hall, had asked Nur to be his Muslim spiritual adviser in the weeks leading up to his execution by the United States government and to serve as the minister of record when he was put to death on Thursday, November 19, 2020.
“At the beginning, it was not clear to me that being a spiritual counselor would entail being there in the death chamber,” Nur told CNN, “and be there only a few feet from the gurney where they execute the person.”
“But the day of the execution, standing there right beside his gurney where he’s lying, in that death chamber, that’s when I realized why he needed me there,” Nur said. Even with the inmate’s family in an adjoining witness room, “I was the only person he knew there.” Between July 2020 and January 2021, 13 federal death row inmates were executed by the US government in the final months of the Trump administration — the first federal executions since 2003, when an informal moratorium halted the death penalty for 17 years. It was a historic series of executions. Prior to the hiatus, only three federal inmates had been executed since 1988, making this schedule of executions the most prolific in decades. The 10 executions that took place in 2020 alone were the most federal civilian executions in a calendar year since the 1800s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Many of the inmates had spiritual advisers like Nur, who ministered to them in the weeks before they were executed and stood next to them inside the execution chamber at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Four advisers who served as ministers of record for six of the 13 inmates recently spoke to CNN. They described their relationship with the inmates, however brief, and what it was like to watch them be put to death. Despite coming from different faiths and walks of life, they described similar experiences and a confluence of emotions — both a sense of duty to be there for the inmates and an undercurrent of anger or sadness at what they witnessed.
And while they were clear they did not condone the violent crimes of which the inmates were convicted, each of the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN believe the death penalty is wrong.
For Father Mark O’Keefe, a Catholic priest and a professor of moral theology, being the minister of record for Dustin Honken’s execution only affirmed that belief.
“I witnessed them killing someone, and I knew him, and I had a connection with him,” O’Keefe said. “It made the death penalty very, very real to me, and the moral wrong of it clear to me at a deeply personal level.”
In July 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five federal death row inmates, reinstating the federal death penalty after a nearly two-decade hiatus.
Could I stand there and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?
Sister Barbara Battista
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement at the time.The death penalty remains legal in 28 states, though governors in California, Oregon and Pennsylvania have imposed moratoriums on executions in their states. But the federal government has the authority to pursue capital punishment in all 50. A series of legal challenges pushed the first executions back until last July, when Daniel Lewis Lee, who’d been convicted of three murders, was put to death. A dozen executions followed over the next six months, culminating with the execution of Dustin Higgs on January 16, just days before Donald Trump left office.
“I wasn’t surprised at all that Trump did it,” said Rev. Bill Breeden, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who’s been the spiritual adviser to death row inmate Chadrick Fulks for more than a decade. “I was surprised at the number of the ones he did and the persistence of it.”
Breeden has been working with prisoners since the 1990s. That work, he said, eventually led to a relationship with Fulks, who Breeden said was “like a son” to him. When the death penalty was set to resume, he feared Fulks would be executed.
Fulks was spared, but Breeden, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, knew he’d be at the prison gates, protesting as many executions as he could. And that was before he became the minister of record to Corey Johnson, who was executed in January for murdering seven people during a 1992 killing spree.
Sister Barbara Battista of the Sisters of Providence, a congregation in nearby Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, felt similarly. As her congregation’s justice promoter, capital punishment became a focus of her work soon after the executions were announced. She and others formed the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance and committed themselves to “making as much noise as we possibly could,” she said. As each execution was carried out, the group stood near the prison, carrying signs and protesting.
“There was a sadness in me, and an anger, too,” said Battista. “It was like, we have to make sure people know this is happening.”
Battista said protesters had tried to honor pain on all sides of the executions, including the families of the inmates’ victims. While they stood vigil outside the prison, they tried to recite the victims’ names to acknowledge their families’ suffering. Another group, she said, had signs printed that included the victims’ names.
‘I can’t pass this cup’
When Keith Nelson first asked Battista to be the minister of record at his execution, she prayed about it, she told CNN.
That afternoon, she’d learned her oldest brother was killed in a car accident, she said. Despite her grief, she wanted to say yes. Still, as a physician’s assistant, she wondered if standing by as someone was killed would be “unnatural.”
“Could I stand there,” she wondered, “and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?”
Nelson was sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Pamela Butler in 1999. Nelson abducted her while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home, according to the Justice Department, and Nelson confessed to strangling her with a wire.
Battista did not condone the inmate’s actions, she said. But she ultimately accepted Nelson’s request, because, she said, “As a Catholic Christian, I firmly believe that all persons deserve my compassion, deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what.”
Nur, a business management professor, first received the request to be Orlando Hall’s spiritual adviser through Breeden, who’d reached out to Nur’s Bloomington mosque searching for one on Hall’s behalf.
The two met at Breeden’s home, in a stretch of forest in southern Indiana, and discussed what the role would involve.
“I said, as you take this on, he’s very likely going to ask you to be in the death chamber with him,” Breeden recalled. “And I said if you don’t feel like you can do that, I won’t respect you any less.”
Nur couldn’t understand. “I kept thinking, what will he get of me being there? In the back of my mind, I was hoping that he would not ask me to be there.”
Hall was sentenced to death for the 1994 kidnapping, rape and murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene. Hall, along with several accomplices in a marijuana trafficking operation, kidnapped her from her Arlington, Texas, home while searching for her brother. After repeatedly raping her, they dug a grave in an Arkansas park, beat her with a shovel and buried her alive, according to the Justice Department.
Hall embraced Islam after his conviction, Nur said, and they spent a lot of time discussing the Quran. But it was “surreal” and “awkward,” Nur said, to talk to Hall about dying. At 49, he was in good shape and looked much younger, Nur said, and it was strange to discuss his impending death.
Just as Breeden predicted, Hall asked Nur to be with him during the execution. Nur still didn’t understand why, but he said yes.
The execution chamber
Father O’Keefe, the Catholic priest, regularly offered mass at the Terre Haute prison, but he generally did not do so on death row. It wasn’t until he filled in for another priest that he first met Dustin Honken.
Honken was sentenced to death for killing five people in 1993 — including Lori Duncan, a single mother, and her daughters, Kandi and Amber, ages 10 and 6 — in an effort to hide his multistate methamphetamine drug operation.
The two only met about four times, O’Keefe said, but he was struck by Honken’s “sincere faith,” and he thought Honken “wanted a deeper relationship with God.” But their own relationship was short lived, and when they said goodbye for what O’Keefe believed would be the last time, Honken had been scheduled to be executed.
Anti-death penalty activist: ‘US needs restorative justice’ 09:39
About two weeks before Honken’s execution, Father O’Keefe received a request from the inmate through his lawyers that he be the minister of record at his execution. O’Keefe didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“It’s the ministry of priests to accompany the dying,” he said. He also recognized “spiritual depth” in Honken, and said the inmate believed a priest “would give him a sense that God was present to him in that final moment.”
“I couldn’t deny that to him,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe acknowledged the suffering of the families of Honken’s victims. He said he agreed to be Honken’s minister of record because the inmate was a human being who deserved to have someone with him at the end.
“It doesn’t change the crime he committed, and it doesn’t change the terrible suffering of that family,” he said. “Those families — what a horrible thing to live with all these years.”
“But killing Dustin didn’t change that…his death changed nothing,” he said.
The day of the execution, O’Keefe said he had expected to spend a significant amount of time with Honken, but in the end they only had a few minutes, with a piece of glass between them.
“We were both upset about that, but both of us knew, don’t fight this because there’s not enough time,” he said.
O’Keefe heard Honken’s confession, and they spoke briefly. Honken was mostly concerned about his family.
“He told me he was at peace,” O’Keefe said, “and that he was more concerned about his daughter,” who had come to visit her father but would not attend the execution.
From there, O’Keefe was escorted into a viewing room. He waited there until he was taken into the execution chamber itself, where Honken was already strapped to the gurney.
“It was sterile,” said O’Keefe, a statement echoed by all the ministers of record. “The color, the tile — it could have been an old hospital room. And all the accoutrements of trying to heal somebody were there — the oxygen monitor, what appeared to be the heart monitor, the IV.”
“But none of that was to save him,” the priest said. “It was all to kill him.”
All the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN described largely the same experience, with slight deviations. Each was told to stand next to a piece of tape by the gurney. They were given an opportunity to speak with the inmate, pray, give last rites, read scripture or recite a declaration of faith. Prison officials, witnesses from the media, the inmates’ family and friends, and the victims’ family watched from adjacent viewing rooms.
Corey Johnson, who didn’t read well, according to Breeden, had asked Breeden to read his last words, the minister said. But Breeden said he was not allowed to and that an official said Johnson had to read the words.
Johnson’s lawyers released the inmate’s final words after the execution.
“I would have said I was sorry before, but I didn’t know how. I hope you will find peace,” he said. “To my family, I have always loved you, and your love has made me real. On the streets, I was looking for shortcuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid. I am not the same man that I was.”
And then the lethal injection began.
The ministers of record mostly described silence as the executions they each witnessed were carried out.
Breeden said Johnson turned to the witness room used by his family and said, “I love you.” Breeden said he heard Johnson’s brother yelling, “I love you, bro. I love you, bro!”
The inmate’s breathing slowed until someone came from an adjacent room and used a stethoscope to check Johnson’s pulse before he was declared dead.
In their statement, Johnson’s attorneys said they saw him as a “gentle soul” who had tried to earn his GED.
“We wish also to say that the fact Corey Johnson should never have been executed cannot diminish the pain and loss experienced by the families of the victims in this case,” they said. “We wish them peace and healing.” The executions gave some families the opportunity to close a painful chapter of their lives. After William LeCroy was executed for the 2001 murder of Joann Lee Tiesler in Georgia, her father said in a statement, “justice was finally served.”
“I regret that it took nineteen years to get to this point, but it has brought some needed closure to Joann’s family and friends,” Tom Tiesler said. Not all the victims’ families supported the executions. Despite then-Attorney General Barr’s statement the US was seeking justice for the victims and their families, Earlene Peterson, whose daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were tortured and killed by Daniel Lewis Lee, told CNN prior to his execution that she didn’t want it done in her name.
“It would shame my daughter,” she said, “that someone has to die for her.”
Nur and Battista would both end up going back to the execution chamber to serve as the ministers of record for two other inmates: Dustin Higgs and LeCroy, respectively.
“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to go back there,” Nur said of receiving the request from Higgs, the last inmate to be executed. “But what can you do? That’s the least you can do for somebody in that position.”
Like the other spiritual advisers, Nur had always been opposed to capital punishment. After witnessing Hall’s execution, however, something shifted.
“From the moment I realized what was happening, that the death penalty issue is no longer on my periphery, that I am facing it, I became committed to the abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “This horror has to stop.”
Nur tested positive for Covid-19 about a week after Hall was put to death, and while he was asymptomatic, Nur believes he contracted the virus during the execution. He later lent his account to a complaint in which other inmates at Terre Haute argued for halting the remaining executions, citing the risk posed by Covid-19. The effort was unsuccessful.The executions drew additional scrutiny because of the fact they were carried out during the pandemic. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, previously told CNN the executions were possible super spreader events because of the number of people involved.
“The decision to move forward with all these super spreader events in the midst of a pandemic…is historically unprecedented,” Dunham said.After Hall’s execution, at least six members of the execution team and more than a dozen Terre Haute prison staffers tested positive for Covid-19, according to a motion filed in court. Attorneys for Johnson also called on the Justice Department to withdraw his execution date after he tested positive for Covid-19 and said proceeding exhibited “reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners and attorneys alike.”
The Justice Department declined to comment when asked about the executions being carried out during the pandemic.Now, with President Joe Biden in office, advocates hope he’ll impose another moratorium on the federal death penalty, if not work to abolish it entirely. Biden’s campaign platform included the abolition of the death penalty at the federal level and incentivizing states to do away with it as well. Since his election, dozens of civil rights organizations have called on the President to follow through on his “promise.” Some have called on him to dismantle the death chamber in Terre Haute entirely.
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Biden’s pick for Attorney General, Judge Merrick Garland, said the death penalty had given him “great pause.”
As an associate deputy attorney general, Garland was involved in the decision to seek the death penalty in the case against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. During his February confirmation hearing, Garland said he supported capital punishment in that case and he did not regret pursuing it.
But he had developed concerns over the death penalty in the last two decades, he said. He pointed to the exonerations of wrongfully convicted people, the arbitrary nature with which the death penalty is applied and its “disparate impact on Black Americans and members of other communities of color.”Garland said he expected Biden would be “giving direction in this area” and indicated it was “not at all unlikely” the Department would return to the “previous policy.”
“We need to abolish capital punishment,” Battista said. “Yes, we need President Biden to affect a moratorium, but that’s just a stop gap measure.” She’s hopeful, pointing to states like Virginia, which is on the verge of outlawing capital punishment. “It gives me great hope,” she said. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, legislators in a number of states, including California and Kansas, among others, have recently introduced bills to abolish the death penalty in their states.
I was honored to be there. But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.
Rev. Bill Breeden
O’Keefe has also experienced a shift after witnessing Honken’s execution. He’d always believed the death penalty was wrong. But as an academic, he said it was something he’d largely only thought about in theory.
“Intellectually, I know the Catholic Church’s arguments against the death penalty and I adhere to those. I am against the death penalty,” he said. “But I must admit, for me, it was always kind of abstract.”
But witnessing Honken’s execution changed something. The next day, his emotions caught up to him, and he realized what he had seen.
“It struck me that being present when another human being is killed just ought not to be,” he said. “That’s when my belief against the death penalty became real.”
Following Johnson’s death, Breeden said he turned to the execution team and told them, “I would be remiss in my role as a minister if I did not advise you to find another line of employment before you lose your souls.”
Outside, Breeden spoke to reporters and the group of protesters who’d held vigil nearby.
“I was honored to be there,” he told them, according to a video of his remarks that was streamed live on Facebook. “But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.”
CNN’s Christina Carrega contributed to this report.