Gathering to sing, pray for death-row inmate before execution called spiritual work of mercy

By Glenda Meekins | OSV News

RAIFORD, Fla. (OSV News) — At 5:45 p.m. Feb. 23, 15 minutes prior to the time Donald David Dillbeck would die via lethal injection at Florida State Prison, a crowd began to sing.

“When the way grows drear, Precious Lord, linger near. When my life is almost gone,” they sang. “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

Among those in the crowd, nearly 60 were parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach. The crowd included veteran opponents of the death penalty who have been to Raiford before, young middle school students from Lourdes Academy there for the first time and those who lost relatives at the hands of violent criminals.

Father Phil Egitto, Our Lady of Lourdes pastor, led his contingent in this spiritual work of mercy — praying for the dead, dying and those afflicted by acts of violence, especially the victims of criminals. This is a sad pilgrimage he has made for decades.

The group hoped that through their singing and praying outside the prison walls, Dillbeck, 59, would understand he was cherished, even as the state of Florida administered a lethal injection into his veins.

Dillbeck was sentenced to death March 15, 1991, after being convicted of killing a woman in a Tallahassee mall parking lot in 1990 after escaping from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy in 1979.

“We have gathered here tonight in prayerful response to acts of hatred and violence in our society. We gather not just as a Christian group, but in union with many groups throughout the state and country who are also holding prayer vigils on this day and time. We are all gathered in the name of God, who is love, here with us,” Father Egitto prayed. “We strive to be instruments of healing and love … instruments of true justice. Let us respond in prayer and in deed.”

In the prayers of the faithful, he asked for intercessions for Dillbeck’s victims and all those of other crimes — that the Lord might provide healing for their wounds.

“Our church is very much pro-life,” he continued. “Very often people don’t focus on all life. I think it’s really important to provide the balance — that people need to understand that all life is sacred from conception to natural death.” He noted many Catholics understand that abortion is wrong, but some “think it’s OK to kill people for killing people. And it’s not OK.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” (2267)

A student from Lourdes Academy Catholic School in Daytona Beach, Fla., stands for life in front of the Florida State Prison in Raiford Feb. 23, 2023, the day Donald Dillbeck was executed by lethal injection. (OSV News photo/Glenda Meekins, Florida Catholic)

Among the death penalty opponents was 13-year-old Nashalie, an eighth grader at Lourdes Academy. She said her faith brought her there.

“I’m here standing up for what I believe in, even if it’s just in this little way with my family, friends and teachers around me. In another way, it’s kind of frightening. It’s kind of nerve-racking,” she told the Florida Catholic Orlando, the diocesan news outlet. “Killing is killing. I carry that with me no matter what happens.”

Since 1973, 30 death-row inmates in Florida have been exonerated, more than in any other state.

One exoneree, Herman Lindsey, spent three years on death row before a unanimous jury declared there was never enough evidence to convict him, let alone put him to death. Released in 2009, Lindsey speaks annually to Our Lady of Lourdes students.

“He may not realize it, but he’s made a difference,” said religion teacher Nancy Sturm. Her grandson and others who heard Lindsey speak years ago are still passionate opponents of capital punishment.

“The youth is our future,” said Lindsey. “That is why I find it important to speak out.”

Another death penalty opponent at the prison was Karen Delisle, whose sister, Patty Ann, was murdered. “A day like this just makes you think — No. 6 — ‘Thou shalt not kill,'” she said of the Sixth Commandment.

“So, we’re going to kill somebody because they killed somebody. Where is the wisdom in that? And for the families of the murder victim, this is all just reigniting their trauma,” she said, recalling her experience in a courtroom 41 years ago when facing a final verdict on her sister’s case. “We need to be life-giving, not life-taking.”

Those singing and praying outside the prison were invited to ring a large bell brought to the event as a symbol of solidarity in opposing the death penalty. When it is rung, witnesses have testified they can hear the sound within the death chamber. Delisle took her turn and rang the bell hard.

After Dillbeck was pronounced dead at 6:13 p.m. the group grew silent. Many stared at the exit where witnesses to the execution came out to board vans and return to the parking lot. Among those with eyes glued to the exit was Father Fred Ruse, a retired Orlando diocesan priest. He is shocked by the speed of the process — 11 minutes.

“What does that say about us? We have perfected death,” he noted.

Father Ruse spent five years visiting “Ricky” Sanchez-Velasco on death row and accompanied him to his death in 2002, singing hymns and praising God for his great love and mercy in his cell. Then in the death chamber, he said, “the two of us fixed our sight on each other during that moment, not to be distracted from what is and always will be of the kingdom of God.”

“Every time I arrive at (Florida State Prison) for an execution, I am transported back to my time with Ricky,” he told a friend days later. “It is uncomfortable, but also very rich. That was a gift to serve that way and come to know him and witness who he was and what was going on deep within him.”

In an email to the Florida Catholic, he shared his feelings at the time of Dillbeck’s death. “Sad. Infuriating. More of the same. The story of our broken and self-preferential/self-serving way of operating. Shallow. Serious injustice. An outcry to God,” he said.

“We throw no one away …, because of the one to whom we all belong — who looks upon us all with equal love and care — our God,” the priest added. “And in that gaze, there is both the truth and the mystery that we just don’t know the entire story, which is our healing and our hope. We can’t. And in that, there is the measurement of our authenticity and honesty in being a community.”

On Feb. 22, there were 300 people listed on death row in Florida, including 297 men and three women. At 6:13 p.m. Feb. 23, that number was reduced to 299.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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