Mercy Denied, Mercy Shown

It all started with a letter—an invitation from the Respect for Life Committee of St. Dismas Parish, within the Delaware Correctional Center at Smyrna, Delaware. They wanted me to come and talk about the death penalty as part of their Respect for Life Series in October 1996. As soon as I opened the letter, I was led to say yes—even though I had no idea of what to expect.

When I arrived at the guard house at the entrance of the prison that October evening, the friendly Catholic chaplain guided me through the security and registration procedures. After the guard found my name on the approved list and I turned in my car keys and driver’s license, I was given a pass, and a guard led us to the next guard post. Invisible eyes observed us and invisible hands pressed buttons and released locks on steel doors and gates. Each time they would shut behind us with a jarring, cold clang, I was viscerally aware of how much farther away I was from the freedom I had left in the parking lot. The last door led us outside to a central courtyard where the chapel stood like an island sanctuary. When we walked inside, its wooden pews welcomed us, offering a beautiful relief from the harshness of metal and razor wire.

When the prisoners started arriving, many of them flocked towards a stocky man with a wide smile who reached out to them with hugs and handshakes.

He radiated warmth and hope, composure and love. This was my first impression of Abdullah T. Hameen, the only Muslim member of the Respect for Life Committee.

We started the evening off with a worship service, during which Hameen gave his reflections on the death penalty. He bared the burden in his soul. He had taken life, but God had been merciful and had led him through suffering, remorse, and penitence to a profound understanding of the preciousness of life. As an expression of his faith, he was doing all that he could to preserve life and end violence in the time he had left before his execution.

Then it was my unenviable turn to talk. In comparison to Hameen’s intimate understanding of the realities of capital punishment, my remarks seemed almost abstract. Yet, the men were wonderfully attentive, receptive to all of my facts and figures. Never had it felt so reassuring to be preaching to the choir.

During the question and answer period, one young man asked, “I would like to get close to Hameen, but I can’t let myself, because it will be too painful for me when they execute him. What should I do?”

I could only release myself to the Light to respond. “Suppose you were a parent and you had a child with a fatal disease. Would you love that child any less because you knew he was going to die?” This sparked a lively discussion. Some men explained that they always gave Hameen a hug whenever they saw him, as a way to show their support. Others talked about how much it hurts to lose someone you really care about.

We asked Hameen for his thoughts. He said that he appreciated all of the support he could get, but that he also understood not wanting to lose someone. He just wanted people to do what felt right for them.

Each year, Hameen and I would renew our acquaintance at the Respect for Life programs on the death penalty. Sometimes we would correspond during the intervening months. He would send me copies of his newsletter, “Just Say No to Death Row,” or copies of legal briefs that he had prepared concerning the human rights of inmates, or ones he had prepared relating to his own case.

Delaware did not have a physical death row until the end of 2000 when the Delaware Correctional Center opened its new Secure Housing Unit (SHU). In this maximum security building, inmates are in solitary cells for 23 hours a day and are no longer eligible for any rehabilitation programs. Prior to this, men awaiting execution were in the general prison population and could participate in the programs offered by the prison or by outside groups that came into the prison. Hameen took advantage of every opportunity he could.

He completed a vocational training course, computer courses, the different levels of the Alternatives to Violence Project, and a Bias Awareness Program. He went through Mental Health Personal Development training and did individual mental health counseling, in addition to facilitating, developing, and writing programs such as the Father to Child Program. He held leadership positions in the Islamic Committee and was active in the Lifers Association. From 1998 until the time he moved to SHU, he was a leader of a peer education program for youth at risk and young offenders through the Delaware Center for Justice. Young people requested him and were riveted by his charisma and his message of nonviolence.

By the spring of 2001, Hameen had exhausted all of his appeals at the federal level and an execution date of May 25 had been set. In early April 2001, Hameen’s wife, Shakeerah, whom I had gotten to know, called me to let me know that he would like me to speak at his hearing before the Pardons Board. I told her to tell him that I would be honored to speak.

Once again, I did not know what to expect. A week or two later, Hameen sent me a letter asking me “to articulate the need for mercy, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation. It is my wish that you open and lay the foundation of what a pardon entails, as opposed to retrying the case. I feel this is needed in order to present our case for a pardon to receptive souls as opposed to closed hearts.”

What an awesome responsibility it was to try to find the right words—or even any words—that could help convince the members of the Pardons Board, who had never yet commuted a death sentence to life imprisonment, to grant mercy to Hameen. It would take a miracle.

When we arrived at the meeting of Delaware’s Board of Pardons on Friday, May 18, 2001, it seemed like a miracle had already taken place. In an unprecedented move, the Board of Parole, which had met with Hameen a few days earlier, had recommended a commutation. The approach that Hameen and his lawyer had taken then, and would repeat today, was that Hameen had been rehabilitated and was more valuable to the State of Delaware alive, as a motivational speaker leading young people away from lives of crime, than dead.

As I was walked to the podium, Hameen gave me the look of friendship, encouragement, and prayer that I needed to speak truth to power:

Good morning, everyone. I wish to thank you, the members of the Pardons Board, for permitting me to speak with you this morning on behalf of Abdullah Hameen, whom I have known for five years.

I first met him in October 1996 when I was invited by the Respect for Life Committee of the St. Dismas Community at Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna to talk about the death penalty. Mr. Hameen was one of the first members of the Committee to whom I was introduced. It was apparent to me in talking with him and in watching the way the men gravitated towards him, that there was something special about him.

During the worship service that preceded my talk, Mr. Hameen gave a meditation that was so thoughtful, insightful, and wise, that it riveted our attention and resonated in our hearts. It was clear to me then, and has only been borne out by years of getting to know him better, that he had earned the respect and trust of those around him and that they loved him not just as a friend and counselor, but also as a source of strength and of hope in their lives. Through his calm spirit and warm heart, he has taught me much about the capacity of individuals to transform their lives through the power of faith. His change came through accepting responsibility for the murder of Mr. Troy Hodges and for the unfathomable sorrow and pain that it has inflicted upon the Hodges Family. His change came through soul searching, through embracing faith, through improving himself—not for favor—but in order to better serve others and to work for causes far larger than himself. It is clear to me that the Abdullah Hameen whom I know is a righteous man—a completely different person from the Cornelius Ferguson of the past.

Bryan Stevenson, an amazing Delawarean who founded and directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, lives by the axiom, “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we have ever done.” To me, this speaks to the heart of restorative justice. It recognizes that human nature is not static, but on a continuum—that we can move from transgression to change. This point of view stands in stark contrast to retributive justice, which insists that “Each of us is no more than the worst thing we have ever done,” and freezes us forever in our moment of iniquity. Restorative justice, by grounding itself in mercy, opens the door to transformation and reconciliation; it nurtures and values growth and change, not only in individuals, but also in society.

As members of the Pardons Board, you are entrusted by the State of Delaware with the awesome responsibility of dispensing mercy. You are the mercy seat, not the judicial bench of Delaware. You are not charged to retry an offender, but to act as the conscience of society. As this conscience, you are the gatekeepers of compassion. You have the power to grant mercy, and by so doing, to begin to break the cycle of violence and retaliation in our society by infusing it from the top down with compassion and reconciliation.

There are some who misunderstand the nature of mercy, deriding and maligning it as “weak” or “soft.” But I tell you that mercy is strong and bold. It is the most Godlike of human virtues. To dispense it is a unique act of courage. For you this morning, mercy is not a vague abstraction; it is the power over life or death. It is something that you alone have the authority to grant. You have the power to give mercy practical expression, you have the power to recommend clemency.

Granting mercy does not remove Mr. Hameen from accountability for his crime. It is not a magic eraser that undoes what was done or minimizes the great suffering of victims and their families. But mercy does recognize that Mr. Hameen today is vastly different from who he was at the time of the crime.

I believe that choosing to exercise your right to grant mercy will affect far more than the life of Mr. Hameen. It will help restore balance in our state and in our society. It will help break the cycle of violence and retribution rampant in our society and in our institutions by modeling a different way—the way of compassion and nonviolence—a way that values life and sees in its preciousness the power and potential for transformation, change, and growth—a way that sees the greatest power of the state not as the taking of life but the showing of mercy.

Many others spoke: the Director of the Delaware Center for Justice, an Episcopal clergy person, a retired nun, Hameen’s wife, his mother, and his son, as well as persons whose lives had been changed for the better by Hameen. A stranger added his voice to those who had urged clemency because of all of the good that Hameen had done in prison and would continue to do in the future if he were allowed to live. He identified himself as the nephew of the man that an enraged 17-year-old Cornelius Ferguson had killed in a barroom brawl in Chester, Pa.

Earlier in the hearing, Hameen had spoken about his life as Cornelius Ferguson and his crimes. He had described with sorrow and remorse the uncontrollable rage that consumed him as a teenager in that bar, as a teenager in an adult prison, as a young man on alcohol and drugs. At 27, Ferguson, still angry, was involved in the drug trade. He went to meet Troy Hodges in the parking lot of a mall in Delaware to collect some drug money. It was an encounter of two bright young men of African heritage entangled in a drug deal that went sour. Troy was a freshman in college whose future seemed full of promise. Cornelius had known a hard and violent life. He became frustrated and furious when Troy did not pay him. When Troy reached for his pager, Cornelius thought that he was reaching for a gun, and fatally shot him. A few days after the murder, he turned himself in.

No one from the Hodges family was present at the Pardons Board hearing, which weakened the impact of the arguments made by the lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office. One of their Victims’ Services staff members explained that she had tried unsuccessfully to reach the family, and had left eleven messages on their answering machine. Basically, the lawyers for the state maintained that Hameen had not been rehabilitated because several years earlier, he had written articles in his newsletter that criticized the death penalty as racist and complained that some prison guards were inhumane. It was clear from some of the questions posed by two of the five members of the Pardons Board that they did not consider the state’s case against commutation convincing. After four-and-a-half hours of testimony, the members of the Pardons Board went out to deliberate. Around 4 p.m. they returned to say that they were too tired to go on, but would continue deliberating over the weekend.

After reading the article about the meeting of the Pardons Board in the Saturday edition of the News Journal, Tara Hodges, the sister of Troy Hodges, contacted the paper to say that she and her mother had never been informed about the meeting. Had they known in advance, they certainly would have attended and spoken in favor of Hameen’s execution. A reporter told her how to get in touch with the lieutenant governor, chair of the Pardons Board. Arrangements were quickly made for a second public session of the Board on Wednesday, May 23. At that meeting, only three people were permitted to speak: the victim’s sister, the victim’s mother, and the director of rehabilitation at the Delaware Correctional Center.

Outrage, pain, unhealed hurt, and a desire for retribution fueled his sister’s angry words. His mother’s words laid bare the depth of her grief and the terrible toll that her son’s murder had taken on her health. The director of rehabilitation stated unequivocally that in his 30 years of service in the prison, he had never seen any inmate become rehabilitated. After his speech, the members of the Board of Pardons recessed to deliberate.

Within two hours the members returned, grim-faced, and announced that they had decided to uphold the death sentence. The execution would go forward in 36 hours as planned. Hameen’s wife wept; the victim’s sister smiled; only Hameen was composed and calm.

I flew to Omaha the next day for a previously scheduled reunion with elderly relatives, so I was away on Friday, May 25, when the execution occurred. A heavy sorrow filled my heart as I held Hameen in the Light, keeping track of the time, knowing that he would be put to death right after midnight. The newspaper reported his final words as, “Tara, I hope this brings you comfort and eases your pain some. Mom and Shakeera, I love you. I’ll see you on the other side. That’s all.” He was pronounced dead at 12:07 a.m.

When I got back to my office in Wilmington and looked through the mail, there was a thank-you note from Hameen. He wrote, “Dear Sally, I thank you deeply for your continuous support and upliftment over the years. May God’s Shining Light continue to light your path and work!”

I thought about him, spending the last few hours of his life thinking of others, writing them notes to express his love, care, and friendship, and encouraging them to live in faithfulness and courage after his death. I wondered if I would be able to be as selfless during my final hours.

With his note in my hand, I was awestruck by his ability to show mercy at a time when the state had denied it to him. Nothing I could have said would have convinced the Pardons Board that mercy and justice are compatible. I saw clearly that the letter I had received from the Respect for Life Committee in 1996 was a divine intervention. I was filled with thanksgiving for the leading of “yes” that had brought Hameen into my life. I saw the wonder and beauty of the way that of God in him was still reaching out to that of God in me, awakening and deepening my awareness, teaching me to trust in the “yes” of the Light, even when my mind has no idea what to expect.

Sally Milbury-Steen

Sally Milbury-Steen, a member of Newark (Del.) Meeting, is the executive director of Pacem in Terris in Wilmington, Del. and a co-founder of DE Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty.