On January 18th I went with my father to the protest of Donald Beardslee's execution at San Quentin. Cops buzzed like bees, roads had been closed off, and it was necessary to walk about a mile from the parking area to the prison gates. There we joined about 400 peaceful demonstrators and breathed clouds of vapor in the biting cold for several hours.
There was a stage and a microphone and, behind it, four blinding lights from inside the prison fence. The small sea of people before me appeared as a hazy mass of silhouetted heads, obscured by mist and refracted fluorescent light. I could barely make out the guest speakers, but a four-foot tall electronic speaker stood right next to my head; I could hear them just fine. My father and I quietly stood together and listened. The topics of lecture included compassion, forgiveness, human hearts, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The odd agitator occasionally yelled, "What about the victims?"
Yes, what about them? Well, first there was Laura Griffin, 54. Beardslee killed her in 1969. He served nearly 20 years in prison before a competent team of experts reviewed Beardslee's case, read about what a model inmate he'd been, and deemed him fit for the real world once more. They set him loose on parole — and just four years later he killed again. It was 1981, and his new victims were Stacey Benjamin, 19, and Patty Geddling, 23. This time the state sentenced Beardslee to die.
"It's a sad thing," mused my father, a vehement opponent of the death penalty, "but if you kill someone you should just be put away on a shelf somewhere, no second chances. What was he doing out?"
Surrounding my father and me were many very sad, sniffling people. I was sniffling, too, for it was cold and my nose was running, but other people were clearly crying.
A man gently suggested, "Let us pray now for our brother, Donald."
I searched deep inside myself, dredged the depths of my heart, and tried my very hardest — but all for naught: I could not produce a single tear. Neither could my father.
"This is ridiculous," he muttered. "Do these people feel really sorry for him? That's just not the point." He frowned and blew into his cold hands. "He's a bad man and should be locked in a cell for the rest of his life. We're not supposed to feel sorry for him."
But righteousness thundered from the four-foot tall speakers on this night closely following the birthday of MLK. One man prophesied that some day soon compassion would tumble down the mountainsides like rushing floodwater. Another spoke tremulously of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
For dinner I had eaten a sardine sandwich spiced with Tabasco sauce, and I was in the throes of heartburn. A burp would barge its way up my throat, followed by stinging fire. I tried to forget my own discomfort and imagine how Beardslee felt at the present moment, walking down the halls of Death Row, in the famous and shadowy Valley. I tried to think of Beardslee's pain, to be as big-hearted as the somber people around me. I tried to muster up some sympathy. An upwelling of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" crawled through the dense crowd. Surely this would do it, surely now my heart would melt. There were no harmonies, though, and too many singers were off-key. A rabbi thundered on about justice and the soul, supper kept climbing up my throat, and I simply could not produce any empathy for the condemned man.
In due time, midnight arrived. A woman next to me began to weep. Donald Beardslee was dying. A long moment of silence began. Even the agitators hushed up. The warden was supposedly going to come out and tell us when the murderer had finally been murdered so that everyone could go home, but the silence stretched on. Ten past midnight, a quarter past. We stoically held fast like Emperor penguins in the austral night. Some were stoic anyway; many sobbed. I gulped down a regurgitated piece of fish. My eyes watered. The wind off the Bay picked up by the minute. Twenty past, twenty-five past, half-past — and that's when word arrived.
"We've just been told," a woman's voice told us though the giant speaker, "that Donald Beardslee was pronounced dead at 12:24 AM." A grave and quiet murmur of many emotions rustled through the crowd like wind in the leaves. My father and I turned our bodies necklessly toward each other with our hands deep in our pockets. We shrugged slightly. He nodded slightly toward the back of the crowd.
"Sure," I said quietly, and away we went. The somber throngs fell in step with us, and like so many penguins, we ambled through the darkness to our cars. Behind us a man's voice spoke the names, one by one by one, of all the men ever murdered by the State of California.
"And tonight, my brothers and sisters, we add one Donald Jay Beardslee."