Spiritual advisers offering final comfort
ST. LOUIS >> For decades, Missouri executions played out in similar fashion: An inmate was strapped to a gurney in a drab room, alone except for the eyes of witnesses staring through thick, soundproof glass as unidentified executioners administered the lethal chemical from behind a cinderblock wall.
But in November, convicted killer Kevin Johnson spent his final moments speaking softly with a pastor, praying, being assured of forgiveness. When Amber McLaughlin was executed in the same room weeks later, her pastor stroked her hand, providing comfort even as McLaughlin expressed that something was causing her pain.
A Supreme Court ruling last March requires states to allow spiritual advisers to join condemned inmates in their final moments, where they can speak together and even touch. Nationwide, spiritual advisers have been alongside 15 of the 19 people who have been executed since the ruling.
“At the end of their lives, they were able to find a peace that they couldn't find elsewhere in their lives, and that was important,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, who was with Johnson.
It takes a toll on the spiritual advisers, though.
“Watching someone be killed when they were fully alive — I just can't get that out of my bones,” said the Rev. Lauren Bennett, McLaughlin's spiritual adviser.
States previously had varying laws and rules. Texas in 2021 agreed spiritual advisers could be present — but they couldn't touch the inmate or even speak with them. Convicted killer John Henry Ramirez wanted his pastor's comforting words and touch, and sued. It was Ramirez's case that resulted in the Supreme Court decision.
As Ramirez faced lethal injection in October, the Rev. Dana Moore placed a hand on the inmate's chest, and held it there.
“Look upon John with your grace,” Moore prayed. “Grant him peace. Grant all of us peace.” Ramirez responded: “Amen,” before dying.
Some inmates have used their final moments to express remorse and seek forgiveness. Among them was James Coddington in Oklahoma, who was executed in August.
“I can't give you his exact words, but they were, `God, forgive me for my sin,'” the Rev. Don Heath said, according to The Oklahoman. “And I said, `In the name of the the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven.'”
Prisons are still adjusting. On Jan. 12, Scott James Eizember, 62, received lethal injection for killing an elderly couple in Oklahoma. At first, the Department of Corrections rejected the presence of the Rev. Jeffrey Hood, citing his history of anti-death penalty activism. The agency eventually relented, and Hood was with Eizember at the end.
Gray, 68, is pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis and is a leading racial justice activist. He has been involved in prison ministry for decades. He first met Johnson three months before the execution and said he was impressed by how Johnson took responsibility for his crime. Johnson was 19 when he fatally shot Kirkwood, Missouri, Police Officer William McEntee, a father of three, in 2005.