Parish accompanies dying prisoner in spirit

The sun sets on the Florida State Prison as the state of Florida administers a lethal injection to Donald David Dillbeck, Feb. 23, 2023. GLENDA MEEKINS | FC

Editor’s note: This is second in a series on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

RAIFORD  |  At 5:45 p.m. Feb. 23, 15 minutes prior to the time Donald David Dillbeck would die via lethal injection at Florida State Prison, a crowd began to sing.

“When the way grows drear, Precious Lord, linger near. When my life is almost gone,” those gathered sang. “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

A Lourdes Academy Catholic School student from Daytona Beach stands for life in front of Florida State Prison minutes prior to Donald David Dillbeck’s execution, Feb. 23, 2023.

Among those in the crowd — close to 60 were parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach. Some were veteran opponents of the death penalty who have been to Raiford before. Others members were young middle school students from Lourdes Academy, coming for the first time. They stood side-by-side with other advocates, some who were victims who lost relatives at the hands of violent criminals.

It was a long bus ride to get to Raiford, but it did not sway their resolve — to arrive outside the prison walls to sing and raise their voices in prayer in hopes death row inmate Donald David Dillbeck would understand he was cherished, even as the state of Florida administered a lethal injection into his veins.

When the pilgrims arrived in Raiford, they were ushered to the “opponents” side where they joined members of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, three death row exonerees and other defenders of life. While roughly 75 stood watch and held signs in support of life, four people stood silently on the “proponents” side. Both sides stared at the massive set of cement buildings across the street.

Father Phil Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, led his contingent in this spiritual work of mercy — praying for the dead, dying, and those afflicted by acts of violence, especially the victims of criminals. This is a sad pilgrimage he has made for decades.

“We have gathered here tonight in prayerful response to acts of hatred and violence in our society. We gather not just as a Christian group, but in union with many groups throughout the state and country who are also holding prayer vigils on this day and time. We are all gathered in the name of God, who is love, here with us,” Father Egitto prayed. “We strive to be instruments of healing and love … instruments of true justice. Let us respond in prayer and in deed.”

Again, in the prayers of the faithful, he asked for intercessions for Dillbeck’s victims and all those of other crimes – that the Lord might provide healing for their wounds.

“Our church is very much pro-life,” he continued. “Very often people don’t focus on all life. I think it’s really important to provide the balance – that people need to understand that all life is sacred from conception to natural death.” He noted many Catholics understand that abortion is wrong, but some “think it’s okay to kill people for killing people. And it’s not okay.”

An Our Lady of Lourdes, Daytona Beach, parishioner prays at the execution of Donald David Dillbeck, Feb. 23, 2023.

Reinforcing this belief is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267 which states, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person…”

Among the opponents was 13-year-old Nashalie, an eighth-grader at Lourdes Academy. She said her faith brought her here.

“I’m here standing up for what I believe in, even if it’s just in this little way with my family, friends and teachers around me. In another way, it’s kind of frightening. It’s kind of nerve-racking,” she said. “Killing is killing. I carry that with me no matter what happens.”

Since 1973, there have been 30 individuals exonerated of the death penalty, more than in any other state. One of the exonerees was Herman Lindsey, who spent three years on death row before a unanimous jury declared there was never enough evidence to convict him, let alone put him to death. Released in 2009, Lindsey speaks annually to Our Lady of Lourdes students.

“He may not realize it, but he’s made a difference,” said religion teacher Nancy Sturm. Her grandson and others who heard Lindsey speak years ago are still passionate anti-execution advocates.

“The youth is our future,” said Lindsey. “That is why I find it important to speak out.”

Another opponent was Karen Delisle whose sister, Patty Ann, was murdered. “A day like this just makes you think — No. 6 — ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ So, we’re going to kill somebody because they killed somebody. Where is the wisdom in that? And for the families of the murder victim, this is all just reigniting their trauma,” she said, recalling her experience in a courtroom 41 years ago when facing a final verdict on her sister’s case. “We need to be life giving, not life taking.”

Opponents of the death penalty toll bells that can be heard within the prison’s death chamber. The bells symbolize their determination to abolish the death penalty and solidarity and prayer with the prisoners.

Along with time in song and time in prayer for Dillbeck, his victims and their families, members are invited to ring a large bell brought to the event. It is a symbol of solidarity in the stance against the death penalty. When it is rung, witnesses have testified they can hear the sound within the death chamber. Delisle took her turn and rang the bell hard.

While speaking at the Cities for Life event at the end of November, Delisle said, “If I chose not to forgive, I would not be living up to my Catholic faith. I would’ve remained a prisoner to hate and rage. My family deserved better, and so did I.”

After Dillbeck is pronounced dead at 6:13 p.m., the group grows silent, many staring at the exit where witnesses to the execution are collected into vans to return to the parking lot. Among those with eyes peeled on the exit doors of the chamber is Father Fred Ruse, a retired diocesan priest. He is shocked by the speed of the process – 11 minutes.

“What does that say about us? We have perfected death,” he noted.

Father Ruse spent five years visiting “Ricky” Sanchez-Velasco on death row and accompanied him to his death in 2002, singing hymns and praising God for His great love and mercy in his cell. Then in the death chamber, he said, “the two of us fixed our sight on each other during that moment, not to be distracted from what is and always will be of the Kingdom of God.”

“Every time I arrive at (Florida State Prison) for an execution, I am transported back to my time with Ricky,” he told a friend days later. “It is uncomfortable, but also very rich. That was a gift to serve that way and come to know him and witness who he was and what was going on deep within him.”

He shared his feelings at the time of Dillbeck’s death. “Sad. Infuriating. More of the same. The story of our broken and self-preferential/self-serving way of operating. Shallow. Serious injustice. An outcry to God,” he told the Florida Catholic in an email.

“We throw no one away,” he said. “Not because of that ‘one’ (we will never be deserving nor those with some sort of ‘right’), rather, because of the one to whom we all belong – who looks upon us all with equal love and care — our God. And in that gaze, there is both the truth and the mystery that we just don’t know the entire story, which is our healing and our hope. We can’t. And in that, there is the measurement of our authenticity and honesty in being a community.”

On Feb. 22, 2023, there were 300 people listed on death row in Florida, including 297 men and three women. At 6:13 p.m. Feb. 23, that number reduced to 299.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, March 03, 2023