July 17, 2020

Catholic inmate’s final words are a prayer to the Blessed Mother

By Natalie Hoefer

Less than two hours before the execution of Dustin Lee Honken on July 17, Providence Sister Jan Craven experienced a moving moment of grace.

When she first arrived for the 3 p.m. anti-death penalty protest and following prayer vigil at a busy intersection in Terre Haute, someone told her Honken’s daughter was present.

“Well, I was very touched,” she said. “So I went up to her … and said, ‘There are no words,’ and I pointed to my heart.”

Sister Jan mentioned the many prayers being offered “with and for” her, and encouraged her to take heart.

“She smiled and said, ‘I cannot thank you enough for what all of you are doing.’ ”

At the same intersection, peals of a standing bell rang out at 4:40 p.m. announcing Honken’s death by lethal injection four minutes prior at the Federal Correctional Complex just a mile away.

“God is the author of life, and our hands are in God’s hands only,” said Conventual Franciscan Brother Ian Bremar after the bell was struck with a hammer. “It’s not for us to force death upon others.”

The pastoral associate for university ministry at St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute spoke before those gathered for the live-streamed prayer vigil.

“It was painful, truly painful,” said Providence Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute, who was also present at the protest and vigil. “I found myself asking how we as a nation can think it is right to kill someone for killing someone. What makes their killing wrong and ours right?”

Honken converted to Catholicism while in prison.

“Keeping in mind the fate of the so-called good thief traditionally known as Dismas, hanging on the cross next to Jesus, the Church has long held the belief in conversion as a lifelong process that remains a possibility for each and every person until the final moment of death,” said Archbishop Charles C. Thompson in a June 18 statement.

On July 9, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, N.J., sent a letter to President Donald J. Trump asking him to commute Honken’s sentence to life in prison without parole.

“I have known Mr. Honken for seven years,” wrote Cardinal Tobin, who, when serving as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visited Honken and other death-row inmates at the federal penitentiary several times a year.

“His present spiritual guide, [Benedictine] Father Mark O’Keefe, confirms that the spiritual growth in faith and compassion, which I had witnessed in our meetings some years ago, continues to this day.”

That conversion was attested to by Honken’s choice to read “Heaven-Haven,” a poem written by 19th-century poet Jesuit Father Gerald Manley Hawkins, in a final statement before his execution, according to a press release from Squire Patton Boggs, LLP.

His last words, according to the Des Moines Register, were, “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.”

The paper also reported that a last-minute effort by Honken’s lawyers to seek a stay of execution from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was denied, allowing his execution to continue as planned.  

Such was not the case for federal death row inmates Daniel Lewis Lee and Wesley Ira Purkey, who had been scheduled for execution on July 13 and 15, respectively.

Following a volley of last-minute litigation, each was executed just hours after the United States Supreme Court overturned temporary stays of execution for each at 2:30 a.m. the day following their scheduled execution date.

Anti-execution activist St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean released a statement on July 16 through her organization, Ministry Against the Death Penalty, calling on the U.S. Congress to launch an investigation into alleged misconduct surrounding the execution of Purkey, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

As the public prayer vigil during Honken’s execution began, Providence Sister Paula Damiano spoke to those gathered.

She mentioned hearing a person from a passing car call out, “An eye for an eye!” (Mt 5:38).

“But that is only half of the [message],” she noted. “It goes on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ [Mt 5:44].

“We can’t forget that part of it, that … justice, love and mercy is the answer. … We say we’re a civilized country. Are we? Are we really?”

(Editor’s note: Natalie Hoefer witnessed the protest and prayer vigil via live-stream, made available by Death Penalty Action.)

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