A View from Death Row.
Reviewed by W.W. Finlator
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 16-17
Last Rights by Joseph B. Ingle (Abingdon Press, 1990).
Seldom do I have the honor to review a book written by a personal friend and respected colleague, and I welcome the opportunity to identify myself with the prison ministry of Joseph Ingle and his eloquent presentation of it in Last Rights.
Dr. Frank Porter Graham, former president of the University of North Carolina, U.S. Senator, and U.N. Ambassador, used to tell us that when a person, born and bred in the South, steeped in and loyal to the best in its traditions, yet possessing the capacity for transcendence, emerges with an open mind and a heart of compassion, you have the true, the authentic liberal. In Joe Ingle, behold the man! The brief account of his spiritual pilgrimage in the first two chapters is worth the price of the book. Southern Presbyterian background; graduate of St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, N.C. (religion and philosophy); the wretched and anguished stint at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, which has long been a solid institution to prepare solid ministers to serve the solid South and during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, no fit place for the likes of Joe Ingle; Union Theological Seminary in New York where at last he could breathe a freer air and indulge his social conscience; the assignment to the Bronx House of Detention where he came to the realization that his “call” was not to the parish but to the prison ministry; and, finally, his growing conviction that it was in Dixie Land that he must take his stand and hence his return “home,” to take part in the founding of the Southern Coalition of Jails and Prisons. Quite a pilgrimage.
The jacket of the book describes the author’s involvement with twelve men and one woman who have been executed since 1976 as “13 fatal encounters.” The phrase is on the mark. There is a sad inevitability in each story, for the reader is painfully aware that in spite of all the heartaches and hopes and heroism the curtain of doom will fall at last and that in no case will there be an “and they lived happily ever after.” Knowing too well the tragic endings, I don’t want to see King Lear or Othello again, and though Joe’s friends on Death Row show genuine character development through his loving ministry, their tragic ends don’t bring cleansing to my soul, as such dramas are reputed to do.
But there are unforgettable services Last Rights offers. The state refers to capital punishment as execution. Joe Ingle always terms it “killing,” and he calls governors, judges, and D.A.s murderers–in our name. However legal the case, no matter the quantity of due process and exhaustion of appeals, the governor who will not grant clemency, the judge who will not set aside, the D A. who will not relent, is a killer.
This hard ball stance by a tender hearted man can only be understood in light of the life affirming nature of Joe Ingle. Throughout the hectic, frenetic pace of the narratives there is time to notice the laughter of little children, to hear the song of identified birds at morn or eve, to admire the lush produce of the fertile soil of eastern North Carolina, to listen to, smell and feel a Mississippi night, to remember to carry two roses to Velma Barfield during her last hours on Death Row. Just the man to affirm with a passion the lives of those who have been condemned to die.
Without exception he demonstrates in each fatal en-
counter the humaneness of his approach and wins the love and confidence of every prisoner by embracing their full humanity. Our government, whether in war with the Vietnamese, or combating drug lords, or dealing with unfriendly dictators, or executing the men and women on Death Row must first strip these people of their humanity. He and his colleagues, standing almost alone, force the world out there to see these victims, as he would call them, as human beings, as God’s children who, regardless of the heinousness and atrocity of their crimes, which he neither denies nor dwells upon, have come from backgrounds of emotional disorders and faced daily deprivations with which they were unable to cope. Yet, despite their sad and sordid histories, they can and do change and mature and love and forgive. Joe Ingle is a man of simple Christian faith and the grace of God is in his book. As a subtitle I would suggest “The Humanization of Death Row.”
I am uncomfortable, however, when he uses the Christian faith to pressure judges and governors, reminding them of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery or of their Presbyterian backgrounds, etc. In the first place it’s ineffective. These “Christian” magistrates are far more aware of votes and constituents and their political futures than they are of the Bible. In the second place such a practice can be counter productive.
If I were Catholic, I would deeply resent the threats Cardinal O’Connor would visit upon me if I failed to vote “Christian” on the abortion issue. And should the Fundamentalists some day come to outnumber the rest of us may Heaven and the Constitution preserve us from a “Christian America.” I dare not presume to counsel Joseph Ingle in his prophetic and courageous ministry, but I hope he will put a major emphasis upon justice and equity and due process and, yes, outrage.
And indeed the author could counter my reservations by pointing to those frequent passages in his book that tell me that 90 percent of all people on Death Row are too poor to hire lawyers to defend them, that court-appointed lawyers are not given to hot pursuit and often tend to incompetence and neglect, that blacks who kill whites are eight times more likely to be executed than whites who kill blacks, that the number of executions is disproportionately high in the South, and that the majority of those on Death Row are poor, unschooled, and have serious emotional disorders–figures to suggest that the death penalty is used as a method of social control.
Some day the pendulum will swing. Some day America will reclaim its conscience and refuse to stay in company with South Africa and Iran as the nations with the largest number of executions. Some day we shall live under a government that refuses to kill its citizens. And a major factor in this return to sanity and humanity could be these 13 souls who were put to death by the state and who Joe Ingle has here kept alive.
W.W. Finlator, preacher, prophet, man of justice, lives as he long has in Raleigh, North Carolina.