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Spiritual advisers offering final comfort in execution rooms

ST. LOUIS (AP) — For decades, Missouri executions played out in similar fashion: An inmate was strapped to a gurney in a drab room, alone except for the eyes of witnesses staring through thick, soundproof glass as unidentified executioners administered the lethal chemical from behind a cinderblock wall.

But in November, convicted killer Kevin Johnson spent his final moments speaking softly with a pastor, praying, being assured of forgiveness. When Amber McLaughlin was executed in the same room weeks later, her pastor stroked her hand, providing comfort even as McLaughlin expressed that something was causing her pain.

A Supreme Court ruling last March requires states to allow spiritual advisers to join condemned inmates in their final moments, where they can speak together and even touch. Nationwide, spiritual advisers have been alongside 15 of the 19 people who have been executed since the ruling.

“At the end of their lives, they were able to find a peace that they couldn’t find elsewhere in their lives, and that was important,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, who was with Johnson.

It takes a toll on the spiritual advisers, though.

“Watching someone be killed when they were fully alive — I just can’t get that out of my bones,” said the Rev. Lauren Bennett, McLaughlin’s spiritual adviser.

States previously had varying laws and rules. Texas in 2021 agreed spiritual advisers could be present — but they couldn’t touch the inmate or even speak with them. Convicted killer John Henry Ramirez wanted his pastor’s comforting words and touch, and sued. It was Ramirez’s case that resulted in the Supreme Court decision.

As Ramirez faced lethal injection in October, the Rev. Dana Moore placed a hand on the inmate’s chest, and held it there.

“Look upon John with your grace,” Moore prayed. “Grant him peace. Grant all of us peace.” Ramirez responded: “Amen,” before dying.

Some inmates have used their final moments to express remorse and seek forgiveness. Among them was James Coddington in Oklahoma, who was executed in August.

“I can’t give you his exact words, but they were, ‘God, forgive me for my sin,’” the Rev. Don Heath said, according to The Oklahoman. “And I said, ‘In the name of the the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven.’”

Prisons are still adjusting. On Jan. 12, Scott James Eizember, 62, received lethal injection for killing an elderly couple in Oklahoma. At first, the Department of Corrections rejected the presence of the Rev. Jeffrey Hood, citing his history of anti-death penalty activism. The agency eventually relented, and Hood was with Eizember at the end.

Gray, 68, is pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis and is a leading racial justice activist. He has been involved in prison ministry for decades. He first met Johnson three months before the execution and said he was impressed by how Johnson took responsibility for his crime. Johnson was 19 when he fatally shot Kirkwood, Missouri, Police Officer William McEntee, a father of three, in 2005.

Johnson was baptized in those final months and was serious in his Bible study, Gray said. A favorite passage of his was the story in Luke about the thief on the cross next to Jesus. The thief repented and Jesus responded, “Truly, I say to you, today you’ll be with me in paradise.”

Throughout their meetings, Gray had a constant refrain.

“They can take your life, but they can’t take your dignity,” he told Johnson. “You’re still a person, you’re still a man. Keep that.’”

When Gray was escorted to the execution chamber on Nov. 29, 2022, Johnson was already on the gurney.

“I’m keeping my dignity, Rev,” Johnson said.

One final time, Johnson expressed remorse. God forgave him, Gray responded, rubbing his shoulder. The pastor said he could feel the lethal dose of pentobarbital pulsing into Johnson’s bloodstream. He kept praying as Johnson heaved a couple of final breaths, then fell silent.

McEntee’s family members were at Johnson’s execution. His wife, Mary McEntee, said Johnson acted as “judge, juror and executioner” in killing her husband.

Nearly 1,600 people have been executed in the U.S. since the late 1970s, all but 17 of them men. The execution of McLaughlin, 49, was historic. McLaughlin, who began transitioning about three years ago, was the first openly transgender inmate put to death in the U.S.

Bennett, 33, is pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of St. Louis, where the congregation is predominantly people from the LGBTQ community. She had no previous experience with people behind bars.

Like Johnson, McLaughlin was sorry for her crime, Bennett said. McLaughlin raped and fatally stabbed 45-year-old Beverly Guenther in St. Louis County in 2003. Guenther’s relatives did not speak after McLaughlin’s execution, and messages seeking comment from them were not returned.

“Amber was haunted by the things she did,” Bennett said. “She wanted to find forgiveness from the victim’s family and God.”

In the execution room on Jan. 3, Bennett and McLaughlin spoke softly about love, peace and the gift of their newfound friendship. Bennett described a “halo of pink” at sunset that evening. Since pink was McLaughlin’s favorite color, “we thought that was a sign that God was ready to welcome her home into an embrace of peace, and sparkle, and comfort,” Bennett said.

Suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“Ouch, ouch, ouch. It hurts,” McLaughlin said, according to Bennett. McLaughlin never had time to explain.

“I held her hand and said, ‘I’m so sorry that you’re in pain,’ and ‘you can still be at peace even though you’re in pain. Remember that we’re here for you and we love you and you’re not alone,’” Bennett said.

Within moments, McLaughlin was dead. Bennett slumped in a chair and cried, “bitter because her death was physically painful, not peaceful.”

Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said there was no indication that anything went wrong with the execution. Republican Gov. Mike Parson is “confident in the protocol” and won’t order an investigation, his spokeswoman said.

As for future executions, Gray and Bennett aren’t sure they’re up to doing it again. Another execution is planned for Tuesday in Missouri, when Raheem Taylor is set to die for the deaths of his girlfriend and her three children in 2004. It wasn’t immediately clear if Taylor’s imam would be present.

Bennett cited a “level of pain, and the cost” she’s still dealing with weeks after McLaughlin’s execution, and Gray nodded in agreement.

“And yet I believe that everybody should be able to die with dignity,” Bennett said. “In a system where dignity is taken away in every way, for someone to be there for comfort and peace and to remind that person that they can have dignity is huge.”