Witnessing the Ritual of Death

Episcopal News Service. April 29, 1991 [91115]

The Rev. Thomas R. Smith

It was 1984. During a pastoral visit to a prisoner in the state penitentiary in Richmond, I saw Chaplain Marge Bailey. Marge, one of the first women ordained by the Baptist Church in Virginia, was greatly loved and respected in this all-male institution. She wanted to talk to me, and invited me into her office.

Marge, looking me straight in the eye, said, "Tom, there's a man on death row in Mecklenburg Prison who badly needs a friend. I think you're the one he needs. Will you do it?" Marge was a person I did not easily turn down, and without much thought, I said, "Of course I will. Can you tell me something about him?" After a long pause, she finally said, "You'll get to know him. All I can tell you is this: he's the kind of person you'd like to have for a neighbor."

A few weeks later I set off on the 90-mile drive to Mecklenburg, filled with trepidation and wonder about how I would react and what I would say to this stranger, Buddy Earl Justus.

In 1978, Buddy had gone on a murderous, 30-day rampage while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He killed three women, one in Florida, one in Georgia, and another in Virginia. His last victim, Ida Mae Moses of Montgomery County, was eight months pregnant when Buddy raped and murdered her. He has been on death row since 1979.

Buddy was brought shackled and handcuffed to a table in the Visitor's Center. He was white, of medium build, with melancholy eyes. We sat and talked. He told me about his family: His mother was murdered when he was young. His father repeatedly abused and beat him until he finally left home at 13. Buddy was 34 years old, the oldest of six children, but no one in his family had written or visited him since his incarceration.

He spoke of his newfound, spiritual life, his Bible reading and study with other death-row inmates. He also spoke, in tears, of his heavy remorse over the lives he had taken, and said he wanted to know more about God's forgiveness. He told me he often felt suicidal, and I learned later that he had made two unsuccessful attempts while on death row. After we prayed together, Buddy thanked me for coming, and as we parted company, I felt a mysterious peace between us.

During the drive back to Richmond, I knew Buddy had blessed me. It was not me, the priest, bringing Christ to Buddy, but Buddy sharing God's grace with me.

I continued to visit him and exchange letters with him over the next six years. Other than me, the only regular visitors he had were an attorney and a school teacher from Richmond, Denise Dunn. She was part of a group of Roman Catholic laity engaged in a volunteer ministry to prisoners.

Setting a date with death

In August 1990, after 11 years in his death-row cell, Buddy made an enormous decision: he would stop the lengthy legal appeals and ask the attorney general for an execution date. This done, the date was set for December 13.

When I saw him early the following November, he looked years younger, with a sparkle in his eyes and a lift in his voice. An enormous burden had been lifted from him, and he spoke about the joy of knowing that his years on death row would soon end. He had no fear of dying, nor of the chair; only an eager longing to enter that new life he hoped he would have in Christ's kingdom.

Buddy was brought to the state penitentiary on Spring Street in Richmond, where the electric chair was kept, on November 29. The aging penitentiary, which the commonwealth was selling, stood nearly empty. Only a dozen or so inmates remained, the rest having been moved to other prisons. Buddy was placed in a cell near the execution chamber. During the next two weeks, he had daily visits with prison chaplains Russ Ford and Bill Jones, and me. Denise Dunn came too, as did a remarkable woman, Marie Deans, director of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons. Marie's work with death-row inmates and their families is truly heroic. She became involved in this work following the murder of a member of her own family, believing that the execution of the killer did not bring her the justice she longed for.

Deans succeeded in getting Buddy's estranged sisters and brother to come to Richmond for a final visit with Buddy on the day before the execution. It was a hard but joyous reunion, filled with tears, as they were permitted a three-hour visit.

The other visitor that day was Bishop Charles Vache of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia. Long an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, Bishop Vache expressed his personal gratitude for a statement that Buddy had released. Buddy and his attorney had invited Governor Wilder, a death-penalty supporter, to witness the execution, but the governor declined the invitation. Bishop Peter Lee [of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia], a death-penalty opponent, sent an appeal to the governor by telecopier, asking him to commute Buddy's sentence. The appeal went unanswered.

While December 13 was surely the longest day of my life, it was the last day for Buddy Justus. The execution was set for 11 p.m.

'You are there for us'

Before I left home to go to the penitentiary, I telephoned Bill Wells, rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond, to ask his prayers for us that day. I knew that Bill would be with a small group outside the prison that night, singing and praying for an end to capital punishment. It was a group that I had been part of during pervious executions. Bill said to me words I would not forget: "Remember, Tom, that you are in there to represent all of us... the whole church. You are there for us."

I arrived at the penitentiary late on the morning of December 13. For the next 12 hours, eight of us gathered in front of Buddy's cell, talking and sharing stories with him. The day became a wake, but with the "deceased" very much a living part of it. We laughed and cried as Buddy told stories of his boyhood in the mountains of southwest Virginia. At 3 p.m., we celebrated the Eucharist together and received the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation.

Just as the Eucharist came to a close, a couple entered the room. Bob and Sarah West had driven from Roanoke to give Buddy good news. A video interview with Buddy, made earlier in Mecklenburg Prison, had been aired on a Roanoke television station the night before, and after the telecast, the sister of Ida Mae Moses had telephoned the station to relay a message to Buddy: that she offered him her forgiveness for his crime. When he heard the news, Buddy wept. We all wept. There was healing.

As it does for every execution, the state acts out a ritual of death. The guards came into the room with a cardboard box and set it down in Buddy's cell. He was asked to put all his possessions in the box; there were letters, photographs, a couple of books, and his Bible. When he picked up his Bible, Buddy called me to the cell, and placing the Bible in my hands, said, "Tom, I want you to have this."

At 6 p.m., Buddy's last meal was brought to him: steak, french fries, and strawberry pie. He had asked for a glass of wine, but the prison denied this request. At 8 p.m., we were asked to leave the room for an hour, during which time Buddy's head and beard would be shaved, and a new pair of blue jeans and shirt given to him. He was moved to a clean cell nearest the door to the death chamber.

When we rejoined Buddy, he was smiling and made light of his new baldness. Slowly and surely the clock moved closer to 11 p.m., and one by one, we had our private goodbyes with Buddy. Only two of us, Ford and I, would walk with him into the death chamber. As I said goodbye to Buddy, he took my hands and said, "Tom, you've been like a father to me. I love you."

At 10:55 p.m., uniformed prison guards entered the room. The prison warden entered and read aloud the court order to put Buddy to death. Asked if he had anything to say, Buddy quietly said, "No." A guard opened the cell door to escort Buddy to his fate. But as the guards reached for his arms, Buddy stopped and said, "Would you kindly allow me to walk on my own?" He did, followed by the warden, Ford, and me.

The death chamber is a stark white room. The electric chair is placed in the center. The warden, Ford, and I stood eight feet away. In the rear is a glassed-in section seating 15 witnesses. Buddy was placed in the chair, straps around his legs, a leather mask placed over his eyes, and the electric helmet on his head. During this ritual, Ford and I spoke to Buddy: "We're with you, Buddy." "We love you, Buddy." "God bless you, Buddy." A red light blinked on, and the first of two long jolts of electricity hit him. Two minutes passed. Then a doctor entered the room, placed his stethoscope on Buddy's chest, listened, and announced that Buddy was dead.

Love and prayers

As I drove from the prison that night, I wanted to howl and scream to the heavens, "How long, O Lord? How long? How many more will the state kill?" Buddy had hoped he might be the last. Oddly enough, I also thought about the people who call themselves "pro-life" -- millions, I'm told. Some of them protest in front of abortion clinics to demonstrate their care and concern for the life of an unborn fetus. They speak of the sanctity of human life. But where were they tonight? They did not seem concerned that the Commonwealth of Virginia was killing a 38-year-old, living, breathing human being.

The next day, Friday, Buddy's body was laid to rest. Eight of us gathered on a cold, windy afternoon in a Richmond cemetery. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I read the Burial Office for Buddy, a child of God, "a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming."

The we shared our memories of Buddy, and I remembered those closing words in Archibald MacLeish's play, J.B., a modern version of the biblical story of Job. As the play ends, Job's wife says:

Blow on the coals of the heart.

The candles in churches are out.

The Lights have gone out of the sky.

Blow on the coals of the heart,

And we'll see by and by.

When I got home that day, I opened Buddy's Bible. He had left a card in it addressed to me with these words: "Take care, my friend. I'll see you in Heaven one day. Love and prayers, Buddy."

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