December 4, 2009

As governor, Kernan faced choice of whether two men should live or die

By John Shaughnessy

If you had the power to determine whether a person should live or die, what would you do?

Joseph Kernan faced that question during his time as governor of Indiana from 2003 to 2005—when he had to decide the fate of two men on death row.

“It was the first decision for me whether someone would live or die,” Kernan recently recalled. “It was serious business. It was very different being in the game than sitting in the stands.”

In 2004, Kernan had to consider the case of Darnell Williams, who had received the death penalty for his role in the 1986 killing of a couple who were foster parents.

“I talked to people on both sides of the issue, people I trusted,” Kernan said. “For me, this was something that needed to be looked at.”

Two of the people he consulted were priests. One was Holy Cross Father Edward Malloy, former president of the University of Notre Dame, which Kernan graduated from in 1968. The other was Holy Cross Father Robert Pelton, who officiated at the wedding Mass of Kernan and his wife, Maggie, in 1974.

Kernan acknowledged that his Catholic faith was a factor in considering the case.

“I think we are all products of our experience,” he said. “That certainly was a factor. It’s one of the reasons that two of the folks I talked to are priests at Notre Dame for whom I have great respect. I trusted I would get good advice. But neither one was telling me what to do.”

Kernan decided to commute Williams’ death sentence to life in prison without parole. It was the first time in 48 years that a death sentence was repealed in Indiana.

“In the commutation I granted, I expressed that it was important for the leadership of the three branches of government to come together and review the death penalty and its application—and while that review was taking place to have a moratorium on executions,” Kernan said.

In 2005, Kernan also granted clemency to Michael Daniels, an Indianapolis man sentenced to the death penalty for killing an Army chaplain, Alan Streett, in 1978. The killing happened during a robbery as the chaplain shoveled snow at his house with his then-15-year-old son, Tim.

Kernan and Tim Streett are now members of the advisory board of the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions. Also known as InCASE, the non-profit organization seeks a moratorium on executions and the ultimate end of the death penalty.

“It’s my hope that that’s where it will lead,” Kernan said. “But I believe a process of looking at all the issues surrounding the death penalty is a necessary first step before you can get to the second step.

“We, as a society, need to think about where we stand on this issue. There are people who obviously feel strongly about it on both sides.” †

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