Dead End

With controversies swirling over execution drugs and high profile statesmen disavowing the death penalty, there’s a storm brewing over capital punishment in Ohio. For Sister Alice Gerdeman and the families she serves, it looks like a break in the clouds.

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By her count, she’s made the drive 43 times. She follows state highways east, past the I-275 outer belt, beyond Shawnee State Forest, to a group of bland brick buildings along Ohio Route 728 in Scioto County. Sometimes she travels with just a couple of staff members, sometimes with a busload of high schoolers. She’s missed the trip only twice over the years—once because she was traveling elsewhere and once because she had a speaking engagement.

In Ohio, state executions follow a strict schedule—and so Sister Alice Gerdeman must follow a schedule, too. She’s up around 4:30 a.m., out of her Pleasant Ridge home by 6, and in her Over-the-Rhine office for a 6:30 a.m. departure time. By 8:30 or so, she and her entourage, big or small, arrive in a parking lot outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, where they assemble to talk and pray and hold signs (for cameras or other demonstrators) decrying the death penalty. As 10 a.m. approaches, they turn to face the Death House. That’s what they call the long, low portion of the penitentiary where, just 24 to 36 hours earlier, a condemned prisoner arrived from death row in Youngstown or Mansfield, finished his last meal, laid on a gurney, and offered his final statement. At precisely 10, Sister Alice rings a bell, signifying the official hour of execution. About 20 minutes later, she gets a call on her cell phone, reporting that the execution is complete. The morning ends when the condemned man’s family exits the Death House and a hearse heads back to Route 728. That’s the cue for Sister Alice and her companions, rain or shine, hot or cold, to come together in the parking lot and sing “Amazing Grace.”

“It works out that very often, the family is leaving the prison at the same time,” she says. “They’ve told us it means a whole lot to know that there’s somebody there. Some choose to come over. Some choose to just get in the car and leave. And whatever they do is fine. We have no expectations.”

I met Sister Alice—that’s what nearly everyone calls her—last spring over coffee and donuts in the cafeteria of The Church of Nativity of Our Lord parish in Pleasant Ridge. She had moved to the neighborhood the year before, when her roommate, a fellow sister in the Catholic religious order of the Congregation of Divine Providence, took a position in the parish. In a quick 15-minute conversation, she revealed herself to be the kind of activist nun not uncommon among her contemporaries: deeply passionate, deeply committed, and completely up-to-speed on every twist and turn of the bumpy, confusing developments surrounding the Ohio death penalty.

Four subsequent interviews with her and conversations with more than a dozen people who know her validated those first impressions. Passionate? She is so consumed with fighting the death penalty that she says she’s happy her work occasionally requires her to focus on immigration, another equally fraught topic. Committed? She’s been on the front lines since before Ohio executions resumed in 1999. Informed? In a state with the seventh highest number of death row inmates and eighth highest number of modern-day executions, where fresh news is nearly constant, the 65-year-old gray-haired former teacher is considered a go-to expert on all things related to Ohio’s death penalty.

“Alice would be a tremendous chief executive officer of a good-sized business,” says Anthony Covatta, a Cincinnati attorney who handled his first death penalty case this year.  “She’s highly organized. She’s got the drill down. She showed me the ropes in a number of respects.”

But even with her long experience, Sister Alice couldn’t have predicted the roller coaster of events that has been the death penalty in Ohio in 2011.

In May, when I first talked with her at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine, she had already logged two trips to Lucasville for the year, and anticipated six more for the balance of the year. In June, I returned to Peaslee to something of a celebration: Gov. John Kasich had commuted the sentence of death row inmate Shawn Hawkins. Shortly after, a judge derailed the July execution of Kenneth Smith, and Kasich, in response, put the August date for Brett Hartman on hold.

As summer gave way to early September, Sister Alice was conflicted. The slowdown in executions suggested the tide was turning against capital punishment in Ohio. “That means we’re being a little more sensitive, not quite as rushed,” she said. “That gives me some hope that we are being more thoughtful and maybe having more doubts.”

But she was also fearful that the good news could soon run out. When we met in Over-the-Rhine, at Tucker’s restaurant, for a cup of coffee, she’d just come from a high school social justice class, and would return there later in the morning to repeat her presentation. Outfitted in her customary white blouse, dark skirt, and silver crucifix, she slid into a booth and confessed to feeling a little deflated. “I thought, you know, it’s really been a lovely summer, not to have to go once a month to a prison,” she said. But the day before the Ohio Parole Board had voted 8–0 against clemency for an inmate named Billy Slagle; without the governor’s intervention, he would be executed September 20. Now Sister Alice was feeling a minor sense of dread that she’d be heading back to Lucasville to stand vigil for an inmate, his family, and the victim he was convicted of killing. Again.

“Every time we do that,” she said, “it takes something out of you. It takes me a couple of days to sort of push that aside, and move on. Not that I’m debilitated. But you know, it weighs on you.”

Later that same day, the governor delayed that execution. Once again, Sister Alice had a reprieve.

Sister Alice Gerdeman was raised in Kalida, Ohio, north of Lima, the oldest of eight children. She took her vows right after high school, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Thomas More College and two master’s degrees—one in education administration from the University of Dayton, the other in theology from Xavier University. She worked in area schools from 1965 to 1980, before turning to peace and justice work for the sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence. In 1992, she landed as coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, or IJPC, now housed at the Peaslee Center.

It is in that capacity, and as chair since 2004 of Ohioans to Stop Executions, that she has gotten to know the cases of Ohio inmates Shawn Hawkins, Kenneth Smith, Brett Hartman, and Billy Slagle—the men not executed this summer—and dozens of others. And it’s those cases that inspired her to create Families That Matter, an IJPC offshoot that offers a lifeline for death row inmates’ families.

It started with Johnny Byrd Jr., his mother, and his sister. Byrd had been convicted of stabbing Cincinnati convenience store clerk Monte Tewksbury to death in 1983. Byrd’s mother, Mary Ray, and sister, Kim Hamer, had been in touch with IJPC as they maintained Byrd’s innocence. Sister Alice and her small staff—typically five or six, with a few college interns—taught the family how to work with Byrd’s attorney, how to navigate the judicial system, how to contact lawmakers, how to advocate for their son, what to do at rallies, and how to handle the challenges of the long, controversial battle to spare Byrd’s life. When Byrd’s appeals ran out and his February 2002 execution date approached, Sister Alice and her team helped with funeral arrangements, including a pre-death baptism in a metal tub. “Johnny wanted to be baptized because he read in the Bible that if you weren’t baptized you weren’t getting into the gates of heaven,” Kim Hamer recalled. “I believe Sister Alice had a lot to do with that.”

When it was all over, Kim Hamer drafted a letter to other Ohio death row inmates from Hamilton County, encouraging them to send their families to Sister Alice for help. “They made me strong, to where I wanted to stand up and speak out,” Hamer said of Families That Matter. “I used to be a very quiet, timid person. Not anymore though.”

Since that time, Sister Alice has offered some amount of counsel and comfort to every Ohio prisoner facing execution. Sometimes inmates hear about her and send their mothers or sisters or nieces for help; sometimes she reaches out to them, asking if there’s a family member or friend who needs assistance as an execution date approaches. She is most able to help families and friends willing and able to put their own energy and effort into an anti-execution campaign. When that help isn’t available, she’ll at least run a petition drive or seek media coverage to fight an execution.

Sister Alice is a nun, and for her, working against the death penalty is a mission so fundamental it hardly needs any explanation or justification. She doesn’t have any personal tie to the criminal justice system—no relatives in jail, none the victim of violent crime. She took up anti-death penalty work after years of toil on other social issues, from hunger to housing to racism to poverty to war. When Ohio resumed executions in 1999, after a 36-year hiatus, she created a committee at IJPC to address the issue. She decided to focus on the families of death row inmates, she says, when she realized that no one else was. The IJPC phone was ringing with calls from frightened and confused kin who didn’t have the first idea of what to do or where to turn. “There were people out there, isolated,” she recalls. “We sat down and said, ‘There is a call here.’”

Shawn Hawkins was scheduled to die the June day I interviewed Sister Alice. On a warm late afternoon, she retreated behind a cluttered desk in the corner of the large open space that serves as the IJPC’s home, as colleagues buzzed across the room and children laughed in the Peaslee play yard beyond the open windows.

Before we talked about Shawn Hawkins or the inmates whose death sentences loomed in the summer weeks ahead, she told me about Wilford Berry, “the volunteer” who abandoned his appeals before they ran their course and whose 1999 execution put the Death House back in business in Ohio.

“He was a very mentally ill man who had been beaten up in prison. He was brain-damaged. He was miserable. And he just told his lawyers, ‘I want to die,’” she said. “When that started, all of us who had been against the death penalty but hadn’t been super active—because there hadn’t been anything to act on—began to get together and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is something we have to be looking at.’”

So IJPC created the committee that became Families That Matter. Over time, it has become a one-stop shop for families with a relative on death row, with Sister Alice and her staff offering nitty-gritty how-to lessons on navigating the legal system. They get relatives to court hearings, and tell them what to bring (identification) and what to leave home (“Save My Son” T-shirts). They sit through hearings and sift through filings and translate the legalese. They stage rallies, organize petition drives, schedule press conferences, and book church visits. And they listen.

“It’s a humiliation for families to say, ‘I have a son on death row’ or ‘a cousin on death row,’” Sister Alice explained. “And if they do have the courage to say, ‘Please pray for my son. He has an appeals hearing coming up,’ people just don’t know what to say, what to do. They change the subject and move on.” She has even worked with relatives who have been given the cold shoulder from their own pastor or priest. Through Families That Matter, she’s learned, families “need somebody that will listen to them.”

Sister Alice has been that somebody for Judy Hogan, the mother of Shawn Hawkins, convicted of shooting Diamond Marteen and Terrance Richard to death during a drug deal in Mt. Healthy in 1989. Hogan is a talker—and Sister Gerdeman has been her willing and wise ear. During the years that she and her family worked to get Hawkins off death row, Hogan came to count on Sister Alice for matters big and small. Sister Alice attended family meetings at the Hogan’s North College Hill home, offered continued counsel by phone, and prepped Hogan when she was booked on radio talk shows. Hogan says she even convinced her to leave town earlier this year (something Hogan rarely does) to attend a conference in Chicago. She spoke there, too, with Sister Alice’s coaching. “I learned by watching her. I learned by listening to her,” Hogan says. “I’ve even mimicked her.”

And so when the governor announced on June 8 that he agreed with the Ohio Parole Board’s 7–0 recommendation to commute Hawkins’s death sentence to life in prison without parole, Hogan wanted to make sure Sister Alice got a chance to talk. When reporters descended on the Hogan home that day for a living room press conference about the governor’s ruling, Sister Alice faced the cameras, flanked by Judy Hogan and her husband, Chuck Hogan, and urged state legislators to end capital punishment. “We came so close—less than a week—before someone who has a very viable innocence claim was going to be put to death,” Sister Alice told journalists that afternoon.

Hawkins’s attorney, Anthony Covatta, was disappointed he was in an airplane headed to California that day and had to miss the press conference. But he was excited that Sister Alice could stand with the Hogans. “Of course I was thrilled for the Hogans, and of course, for Shawn,” he said. “But I was thrilled for Alice because she got a chance to be in the spotlight, which I don’t think she’s been in very much. And she also got a chance to celebrate. This was one that was a winner—and she was definitely part of it.”

Sister Alice was a sounding board for Carol Parcell, the mother of Brett Hartman, too. A longtime member of Families That Matter, Parcell traveled from her Akron home for meetings until her death in August 2010. “I know that it provided her with immense non-judgmental support, a place and people she could speak to freely about her concerns and fear, and gain practical advice,” Hartman’s sister, Diane Morretti, says.

Hartman himself—convicted of stabbing a sometimes-sex partner named Winda Snipes to death in her Akron apartment in 1997—has never met Sister Alice. But he knows she testified on his behalf before the Parole Board and organized an online sale of his artwork, and considers her an ally. “When the whole world hates you, to have a shining light in that darkness like Sister Alice is a true blessing,” he said via the state’s user-pay e-mail system. “It takes heart and dedication to fight such an uphill and never-ending battle. I fight it because I have no choice. It is a true hero that picks such a fight out of choice.”

Guilt is not the issue for death penalty opponents, according to Sister Alice. “We believe that every single person’s life is sacred,” she says. “Obviously it is easier to work when there is innocence involved. But even when we know or have doubts in our mind that a person is guilty of the crime, we still do not believe that they should be executed. We do not believe they should be released into society, but we do not believe they should be executed.”

It’s easy to think of Ohio’s death row inmates as monsters; Sister Alice knows that. She’s well aware of the horrific details of their cases. Hawkins was convicted of shooting his victims in the head; Brett Hartman, of stabbing Winda Snipes 138 times and cutting off her hands. Kenneth Smith, the inmate who won a reprieve in July, was sent to death row for beating Lewis Ray to death and strangling his wife, Ruth Ray, during a robbery in their Hamilton home. Billy Slagle, who won a reprieve in September, was convicted of stabbing neighbor Mari Ann Pope to death with sewing scissors in her Cleveland home, while attempting to rob her for money to buy alcohol.

Sister Alice also understands the anger of those who have lost loved ones to violent crime. Families That Matter has even worked with one family that was, quite literally, caught in the middle. Jeffrey Hill of Cincinnati was convicted of stabbing his mother to death for drug money in 1991, but his death sentence was reduced to 25 years to life in prison after his family argued that execution would only add to their pain.

Still, Sister Alice maintains that executions neither heal the pain nor resolve the issues created by even the most heinous murders. So she works each case like a defense attorney, helping relatives leverage every legal angle, grasping for whatever will spare their loved one’s life.

With 148 inmates on Death Row and a death penalty supporter occupying the governor’s office, Sister Alice has faced plenty of battles. That’s especially been the case in the last two years: eight of 11 scheduled executions went forward in 2010, and 10 more were scheduled for 2011.

Then the wind shifted. Or, to hear Sister Alice explain it, hearts and minds changed. Issues related to the death penalty—questionable convictions, messy executions, out-and-out exonerations, the rising cost of appeal cases, not to mention a steep decline in death penalty convictions—have been piling up around the country for some time. In Ohio, the momentum building against the death penalty picked up speed dramatically early this year.

In January, Ohio Supreme Court Senior Justice Paul E. Pfeifer called for its abolition as he was sworn in for a fourth term. “I helped craft the law and I have helped enforce it,” Pfeifer wrote in a guest piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, noting that he co-wrote the Ohio statute on the death penalty in 1981 as a state senator. Under that law, the death penalty was presented as an option for the “absolute worst offenders” with Ohio’s high court assigned to monitor the fairness of death sentences, Pfeifer wrote. In practice, prosecutors sought the death penalty in too many convictions, he said, until a 2005 law gave them the option of life without parole for murder convictions. With that law providing an alternative, Pfeifer said, Ohioans are “not well served by our ongoing attachment to capital punishment.”

The same month, Terry Collins weighed in. Collins, who oversaw 33 executions from 2001 to 2010 as director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, followed Pfeifer’s lead in an op-ed piece in The Columbus Dispatch. The cost of capital punishment is too high, Collins wrote, in dollars and trauma to victims’ families, who suffer through endless appeals of death sentences. He also pondered the central question of the issue: What if the state kills an innocent man? “All 33 times, in the back of my mind I questioned: Had all the reviews and appeals got this case right?…What if we got it wrong for those we executed?”

Around the same time, Ohio began to grapple with another complication with lethal injection, its sole method of execution. In November 2009, following a botched execution, the state dropped its protocol of using three drugs to kill the condemned and adopted a single injection of sodium thiopental, a barbiturate. In January, with the maker of that drug discontinuing its production, the state moved to a drug called pentobarbital. The problem: pentobarbital costs nearly 10 times more than sodium thiopental and its maker, the Denmark-based Lundbeck, Inc., opposes its use for executions. Pentobarbital, sold as Nembutal and under other names, is approved as a sedative, epilepsy treatment, and veterinary anesthetic. A Lundbeck spokesman, in announcing strict new rules for its U.S. distribution in July, said the company was “shocked and outraged” to learn the drug was being used for lethal injections. 

By spring, elected officials jumped into the fray. In March, Ohio State Representatives Ted Celeste and Nickie Antonio introduced their Execute Justice Bill to outlaw the death penalty in favor of life in prison without parole. In early June, Kasich took Shawn Hawkins off death row, saying Hawkins’s role in the deaths he was convicted of was “frustratingly unclear to the point that Ohio shouldn’t deliver the ultimate penalty in this case.” After attorneys for Kenneth Smith argued that Ohio strays from its own execution protocols, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost agreed; he called Ohio’s death penalty methods “haphazard” and said the state does not follow its own polices on the administration of pentobarbital. Frost halted the July execution of Kenneth Smith, and the governor followed suit by putting a hold on the August and September dates—of Brett Hartman and Billy Slagle—while the state worked out the issues flagged by the judge.

On August 7, The New York Times editorial page weighed in, citing the string of events in Ohio as reason for all 34 death penalty states to “outlaw this barbaric punishment.”

Patient. Sympathetic. Emphatic. Calming. Wise but with an exuberance that sometimes masks her worldliness. Sister Alice’s fans offer those and other adjectives about her, often keying on her ability to leave her ego behind and focus on the needs of whoever she works with. “She can be with people who are working class and has no presuppositions,” attorney Covatta says. “She’s just as comfortable sitting in their living rooms as she would be having dinner with the governor at the executive mansion in Columbus, where I am quite confident she would do very well.”

And despite her cheerful disposition, Covatta says, she is tough and steely as needed. “She’s not a bleeding heart,” he says. “She’s not going to collapse in a pool of blubbering tears when things don’t go her way.”

In fact, she’s often most helpful when things go bad, says Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions. When his office hits a setback in the battle over capital punishment, Werner’s first thought is often to fire off a heated public statement. He says that Sister Alice is a steady hand on the rudder, advising, “Let’s wait a day; let’s see how things look then.” She opts for the “long view,” Werner says: “She was active with our organization even before executions resumed in 1999 and so the spectrum of events, the stops and starts, all these things that are happening today have happened in the past. She’s been through just about everything. That helps her to be OK with [the fact that] we don’t really know what to expect.”

On the early September day when Sister Alice thought she might, indeed, be headed back to Lucasville for the execution of Billy Slagle, I ask her how, at age 65, she still has the fortitude for such divisive work. She credits the people she serves. “There’s an energy that comes from the family members,” she says. “Because they are so intent and they are so grateful.”

But if the wind blowing through Ohio should one day shutter death row, Families That Matter would be happy to change its focus—and work for crime prevention, prison improvements, or compensation for crime victims. “We would love to have that discussion,” she says. “What is our next step?”

Until then, she’ll continue to see death penalty cases through to the end, even when that end takes her to the Death House in Scioto County. That could be this year, with one more execution scheduled, or next year, with seven on the calendar, or 2013, with three more on the docket. “I don’t see any end in sight until we change the law,” she says.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue.

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