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Editor's Note: Michael Ross was executed in Connecticut early in the morning of May 13, 2005 for the murder of four young women in eastern Connecticut in the 1980s, becoming the first person executed in New England in 45 years. Jeffry Wells, M.Div. '05, offers a first-person account of his opposition to Ross's execution and the involvement of other members of the YDS community in capital punishment activities.

Reflection and Action Around the Death Penalty

by Jeff Wells '05

As I write this article, it is May 12—just hours before the State of Connecticut 's scheduled execution of confessed serial killer Michael Ross. While the courts have stayed Ross's execution twice over the past few months, Ross himself has relinquished further appeals and says he wants the execution to go forward. The legal battle over his competency to make that decision seems to be exhausted. It appears that Ross will indeed be put to death tonight.

Having worked extensively on a Pennsylvania death row case in the 1990s, I felt an urgency to respond when I received word early this year from a United Methodist pastor of an ecumenical service and vigil in Hartford in opposition to the Ross execution. At the time, the execution was scheduled for January 25, 2005. I circulated an email to the Yale Divinity School community about these events and offered a ride to anyone who wanted to attend. Five of us drove to Hartford that night for the service at St. Lawrence O'Toole Roman Catholic Church sponsored by the Christian Conference of Connecticut. Seated in the chancel were an impressive array of leaders representing the Connecticut or New England bodies of seven Christian denominations: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, the United Methodist Church (UMC) of Hartford, the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, and the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut.

As it turned out, the vigil was canceled because a state court stayed the execution, but the service went on as planned. With pews filled to capacity, the service was a profound and moving experience. I took the overarching theme to be “praying for reprieve”—reprieve not only for Michael Ross, but reprieve from grief and anger for the families of Ross's victims, reprieve from state-sanctioned murder as vengeance, and reprieve from violence in our society. In addition to religious leaders, the speakers included three persons who had lost children to murder and who were all campaigning against capital punishment. The father of a woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing who had witnessed the execution of Timothy McVeigh warned the assembly that seeing someone else die brings no relief from mourning. Rev. Walt Everett of the Hartford UMC observed that he was able to overcome outrage over his son's murder only through coming to forgive the man who wielded the gun. He summed up the impulse of the ecumenical effort in a few powerful words: “This is not about Michael Ross. It's about who we are. Are we those who will intentionally and with premeditation kill another human being, or will we seek the reconciliation to which Christ calls us?”

In addition to the six students who initially wanted to attend the ecumenical service, I received several emails from students and faculty who could not attend but who expressed their encouragement or told of anti-death penalty advocacy in their own parishes. As a result of the publicity at YDS around this event, I learned of widespread involvement of students, staff, and faculty around the issue of state execution.

Andie Wigodsky, a senior at YDS, began work around the death penalty while she was an undergraduate at Duke University. It began when a mentor asked her to write to a pen pal on death row while he was away. That was in 1999, and Wigodsky continued to write to (and visit when possible) Johnny Burr, who remains on death row in North Carolina. Wigodsky was also inspired, beginning in 2001, to work with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, a North Carolina advocacy organization. A big part of her work was organizing campaigns in conjunction with other advocacy groups and legal affiliates to stop specific executions. PFADP also put significant effort into education and getting churches involved. Wigodsky plans to enter parish ministry in the Episcopal Church and hopes to incorporate advocacy and education against the death penalty into her work. She inspired a YDS middler, Rob Leacock, to begin a correspondence with an inmate starting last December. Since then, Leacock has written monthly to a prisoner on death row in his home state of Florida.

Carmen Germino, a first year M.Div. student at YDS, spent the summer of 2003 in an internship with the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. Her internship was sponsored by the Lilly Foundation Summer Discernment Institute at Sewanee, where she did her undergraduate work. Germino was primarily involved in a project called Tennesseans for a Moratorium on Executions, whose purpose was to provide time for an in-depth investigation of the Tennessee judicial system and the application of the death penalty in the state. She was impressed by the dedication of many faith communities working together against capital punishment, and her experience was in large part what prompted her to consider attending seminary.

Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge is working on a book on the Bible and the death penalty. Attridge points out that, while the Hebrew Scriptures appear to depict a homogeneous pro-death penalty stance, “we should be careful not to assume a single perspective…in this complex collection” out of which we can discern a variety of voices and perspectives on how, when, and why the death penalty should be imposed and reflecting “ancient debates and struggles.” In addition, he notes that some intertestamental literature as well as the New Testament is less than sanguine about state authority and the death penalty and that when one listens to the biblical witness “it must be heard in all its complexity.

One of the closest YDS connections to capital punishment in general, and the Ross case in particular, is in the person of Michael Norko, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale and the court-appointed psychiatrist who was selected to review Ross's mental state. In 2003-04 he has been a part-time Yale Divinity student and next year will be enrolled in the Master of Divinity program. He conducted a four-hour interview of Ross in December 2004 and subsequently testified that Ross was well aware of his legal options. He is a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Religion and Spirituality and is considering a future role in the Roman Catholic deaconate. Norko has been doing forensic psychiatry since 1987 and working on capital cases since 1990. He has consulted on the cases of eight inmates in six states. In most cases, he has been hired by the defense in post-conviction relief proceedings.