Saturday, 20 January 2007

Against death: Penalty opponents to speak

Against death: Penalty opponents to speak

Dale Recinella, counselor to the condemned, and wife Susan will speak on Sunday against the death penalty

By Sharon Kant-Rauch
The Tallahassee Democrat
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Dale Recinella stood in front of a window about to witness an execution. The condemned inmate on the gurney had chosen him as his spiritual adviser and Recinella felt it was his job to be a loving presence right until the end. He tried to make eye contact, but the inmate couldn't see him. The glare of the glass got in the way.

"Where is Brother Dale?" the inmate wanted to know.

Recinella raised his hand hoping to get the man's attention.

"I love you, man," the inmate said.

Recinella felt an emotional shift in the room of witnesses.

"His humanness had exploded into the situation," said Recinella during a recent phone interview. "You could feel the palpable effect on the other people."

Recinella, a former proponent of the death penalty who used to live in Tallahassee, has witnessed five Florida executions - including the botched lethal injection of Angel Nieves Diaz in December. He also counsels about 365 prisoners on Death Row and more than 1,000 inmates in solitary confinement. His wife, Susan, ministers to the families of the executed.

The Recinellas, who live in Macclenny near Florida State Prison, will be at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More on Sunday to talk about their experiences (although some are confidential) and to discuss the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on the death penalty as part of a campaign sponsored by the Bishops of Florida.

Tom Vickers, a Tallahassee member of the bishop's statewide Committee Against the Death Penalty, said most people are familiar with the church's view on abortion, but are less clear on the death penalty. Both issues, he said, are about the "universal sacredness of life."

Vickers, who has met Dale Recinella several times, said the couple should have a "riveting" story to tell to bring this message home.

Shirley Poore, a member of the Catholic group Pax Christi agreed. During more that two decades, she has watched the couple and their five children downsize so they could work with the poor and outcast.

"Their lives," she said, are "focused on simplicity and service."

A change of attitude

The Recinellas moved to Tallahassee in 1986 and bought a home in High Grove. Dale, a graduate of Notre Dame University Law School who had worked at the Ford Motor Co., was doing public-finance work for the state of Florida. At the time, Dale supported the death penalty because he felt it was one way he could support crime victims. Within a few years that opinion would begin to change.

By the late 1980s, Sue and Dale were involved with Good News Ministries, Habitat for Humanity and Big Bend Cares. Because of his work with AIDS patients, a priest asked Dale one day in 1990 to visit an inmate in the Apalachee Correctional Institute in Sneads who was suffering from the disease.

Dale's initial reaction: "Absolutely not."

He had visited people at the Leon County Jail, and he didn't relish the idea of going into a prison.

But at the encouragement of his wife, children and spiritual adviser, he went. He vividly recalls his first visit.

"When we went inside that fence and that gate slammed shut, every hair on my body stood up," he said.

"I had the realization that I was locked in, and I couldn't choose to get out unless somebody let me out. It was a very sobering feeling."

The men he encountered shattered his stereotypes about prisoners. Yes, many had horrendous childhoods, and they had made bad choices. But when it came to prayer time, they prayed for the same things most people do - help for their struggling children, healing for a loved one. He remembers one World War II veteran in particular who wrote his wife every day. The man reprimanded the other prisoners, telling them they needed to change their behavior.

"Everybody loved and respected him," said Dale, who visited regularly over the next six years. "He could go anywhere in the prison and no one dared bother him."

In 1996, the Recinellas decided to go to Rome to study theology in a lay community. Three of their children, who were still at home, went with them. Dale worked at an international-law firm five blocks from the Vatican. The family met Catholics from all around the world.

When they returned to the United States two years later, however, they didn't know what they were going to do. They decided to leave it up to God.

Things just clicked

While they stayed with friends in southwestern Pennsylvania, they searched for meaningful work. Susan, a psychologist, eventually got a job interview at Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny. While they were visiting the town, they went to the Catholic church and met the priest, who they found out had been ministering to Catholics at the local prisons by himself for 15 years.

Everything seemed to click. A week after the Recinellas moved to Macclenny in 1998, Dale was visiting the Florida State Prison and the nearby Union Correctional Institute with the priest. Today, he visits inmates two full days a week, going cell-to-cell, talking to the men through small, barred windows. (He also works part-time at Christian Healing Ministries in Jacksonville.)

Often the visits are short, praying for the needs of the inmate. But when an inmate chooses Dale to be a spiritual adviser before he is executed, Dale spends a lot of time with him in the final weeks. Angel Diaz was one of those people.

Unlike most lethal injections in which the inmate becomes unconscious in the first few minutes and dies within about 15 minutes, Diaz was conscious for more than 20 minutes and took more than a half hour to die. The reason was the needle had gone through Diaz's vein.

The bungled execution has revived arguments about the death penalty.

Dale said he can't talk about the execution because he expects to testify about it in court. But he did say Diaz's large, Catholic family came to the prison for a final visit. After they hugged him for the last time, they formed a prayer circle. They sang Spanish songs. They prayed . They wept.

The depth of their grief is similar to what Dale has experienced with other families of the executed. It's part of what changed his mind about the death penalty. He would eventually write "The Biblical Truth About America's Death Penalty," published by Northeastern University Press in 2004, making the argument that the Bible doesn't support executions.

Ministering to families

The families of the executed also have had an impact on Susan. The first time Dale was involved with an inmate to be executed, she asked who was ministering to the family. When she discovered no one was, she immediately stepped into the role.

Now, when an inmate asks Dale to be his spiritual adviser, Susan sits vigil with the family in the final weeks. She's there, she said, mostly to listen. She arranged for the members of one family to be at the Catholic church when their loved one was executed. The church was quiet and dim, lit candles casting shadows on the walls. The elderly mother was there. So were several brothers and sisters.

"They were a traditional Catholic family," Susan said. "I knew they would desire a sacred space."

Over the years, Susan also has ministered to victims' families. She said, surprisingly, she finds the families of the victims similar to the families of the executed.

"The suffering that comes with the family is always the same," she said. "The grief comes from deep, deep within."

The Recinellas grieve, too. In some cases, Dale has known the inmate for almost a decade. He said his hardest time is going on rounds after an execution.

"My mind doesn't want to picture each man I see on that gurney," he said. "It's a spiritual fight. I have to ask the Lord to keep thoughts and pictures out of my mind."

Asked why they continue this work, both Recinellas said they couldn't do it without help from God.

"I have a strong sense that this is what I'm supposed to be doing," Dale said. "When you feel like you're doing exactly what God has prepared you to do, you have a sense of rootedness."

Today, he said he's ashamed that he ever supported the death penalty.

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