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Donald Beardslee (2005)

I didn't expect it to hurt so much.

I'd never met Donald Beardslee, only heard about him from his lawyers and family, read about him in court documents and news reports. So I knew of him rather than knew him. I knew of the horror of the crime he was involved with and the pain his actions had caused the families of the victims. I knew some of his history: the weird guy, the slow one who couldn't connect with others, was always the goat, caught the blame, took the beatings for things he did and didn't do, was so easily manipulated. But I didn't really know him.

So why did it hurt so much to stand at San Quentin's gate as they killed him?

I'd been there before as they killed others, some I knew. This was no different: six or seven hundred people overcame obstacles intended to keep them away, walked through the dark, passed barricades, police lines and other intimidation to gather at the east gate in the bitter cold and declare by their presence that government killing serves no meaningful purpose. Some prayed, some sang, some spoke to inspire action, denounce violence, offer hope. Two or three lost souls came to heckle and jeer, applauding death. Most simply stood, eloquent in their candle-lit silence, ignoring spotlights, police cameras recording their presence and a phalanx of guards arrayed as if to protect the institution from assault by praying candle-wielders.

So why did it hurt so much this time as the midnight hour arrived and all stood silently facing the killing place?

Certainly there had been hope. The discovery of Beardslee's brain damage, major mental illness and transient psychotic episodes, unknown at the trial that condemned him, made his execution unthinkable, not only ethically inappropriate but perhaps illegal under international law. The state, however, lost in the institutional imperative to never admit error, stonewalled and denied. Medical experts, former colleagues, lawyers, family members and other politicians went to our Governor, pleading that state killing, if ever appropriate, should not be used on one with a damaged brain. He of the powerful body and movie-tough-guy image, they prayed, would have the strength of character to recognize that true leadership was called for in this matter. If there was doubt, they offered, a short reprieve for an MRI could resolve any question. Stay the executioner, Arnold, Donald Beardslee can do no harm where he is.

But no, character lost, politics won. So sad, so very sad, but what's new? As it was with Davis and Wilson it would be with Schwarzenegger. Politics wins. But then why did it hurt so much this time?

Perhaps it was because Beardslee's lawyer called and asked that I speak to the crowd on Donald's behalf, to pass on a message from him. Donald wanted me to thank all those people for coming. He was having a hard time understanding that so many people would come in the cold night to be there and show they cared about him, about his being put to death. He'd been told that people had made phone calls and written letters and he was glad for that, but he particularly wanted me to thank all those people standing out in the cold. He even wanted me to thank the people “who put in the staples to hold the signs on the sticks.”

Donald was not capable of articulating it himself, the lawyer said, but this was clearly the most positive attention he had ever experienced. The dysfunction that had kept Donald from developing emotional relationships in his lifetime was somehow being penetrated by this outpouring of concern. “I think,” he said, “it may be that for the first time in his life he's experiencing something like the feeling of being loved.”


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