Mercy Project seeks to end death penalty in Texas
By Enedelia J. Obregón
Could you forgive your child’s killer?
Marietta Jaeger-Lane was faced with that dilemma after a stranger kidnapped and killed her 7-year-old daughter, Susie, in 1973. She shared her journey to forgiveness at a conference titled “Journey to Mercy: Rethinking the Death Penalty in Texas.”
Jaeger-Lane was keynote speaker at the two-day event sponsored by the Texas Mercy Project organized by the Texas Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic bishops of Texas. Other sponsors were the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who hosted the first day’s event at the Capitol, attended by about 60 people.
Other speakers included Kristen Houle, executive director of the TCADP; Sam Millsap, former district attorney for Bexar County; Deacon Richard López, former death chamber chaplain; Steve Mims, educator and filmmaker of “Incendiary,” a documentary about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004; attorney Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP; former Gov. Mark White; Karen Clifton, executive director of the CMN; and Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service.
Jaeger-Lane shared her story at the Capitol and at St. Austin Parish the second day after a scheduled rally and march to the Capitol were cancelled due to weather. Parishioners from St. Ignatius Martyr Parish and St. Albert the Great Parish in Austin shared what they do to bring attention to capital punishment at their parishes.
Jaeger-Lane recounted the extended camping trip she embarked on with her husband and five children from their Michigan home to Montana. On June 23, they set up camp at the Missouri Headwaters State Monument near Three Forks, Mont. That night, someone cut a hole in the tent where the children slept, taking Susie.
Authorities, including the FBI, began the search. It was while they dredged the nearby river that Jaeger-Lane said she got in touch with her rage.
“I was taught that good Catholic girls never got angry,” she said. “I had gotten adept at repressing any rage. But I allowed myself to experience it. I didn’t care what God or mom and dad thought.”
She asked herself what she would do if the FBI brought the kidnapper to her and allowed her to do to him whatever she wanted –– without consequences.
“I knew that I could take this man’s life with my bare hands with a smile on my face,” she said.
That night, she heard God tell her, “That’s not how I want you to feel.” Time and again she kept hearing that voice.
“Thus began my wrestling match with God,” she said. “I finally surrendered. When you have a wrestling match with God, you know who wins.”
The family returned home. She bought a Bible and began reading it, especially the Scriptures on forgiveness.
“God made it clear I was called to pray for my enemies,” Jaeger-Lane said. “It was the last thing I wanted to do.”
A year almost to the minute after Susie was kidnapped, the kidnapper called.
He taunted her. But instead of replying with anger and rage, she responded with concern and compassion for him.
“I told him ‘I’m praying for you. Is there anything I can do for you?’ The phone went silent,” Jaeger-Lane said. “He was sobbing. He said, ‘I wish this burden could be lifted from me.’”
David G. Meirhofer was eventually identified and caught. Susie’s remains were found. He confessed to killing Susie and three others.
Jaeger-Lane asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty. She had accepted that he was a child of God just as Susie was.
“Killing him in Susie’s name was to violate everything that was good about her,” Jaeger-Lane said. “In the end it just makes another victim, another grieving family and it doesn’t bring Susie back.”
The family decided to bury Susie in Montana where Meirhofer is also buried after killing himself in prison.
Jaeger-Lane returned to visit Meirhofer’s mother. They visited both graves together.
“The man she knew was a loving son,” she said. “We embraced and wept on each other’s shoulder as two mothers who lost their beloved children.”
Her husband, Bill Yaeger, died in 1987 of a heart attack. Jaeger-Lane believes it was the stress of being unable to forgive that indirectly caused his death.
Houle, from TCDP, said there is a shifting landscape in Texas regarding the death penalty. As of the first day of the conference, it had been nine months and 21 days since Texas had handed down a death sentence.
“We cannot overestimate the importance of SB60 that offers life in prison without parole as an alternative,” she said of Lucio’s bill that allows juries the choice of life without parole. “There is also a growing awareness of wrongful convictions.”
Millsap, who since 2000 has publicly stated his regret for supporting the death penalty, said people need to learn about the high financial costs of capital punishment.
As an example of the “madness” of capital punishment, he recounted the story of a death row inmate who attempted suicide 36 hours before his scheduled execution. He was rushed to the hospital –– where he recovered for a week at taxpayer expense –– before being returned to death row and executed.
Capital punishment is also insanely expensive because of all the appeals required by law, Millsap said, citing a story from the Dallas Morning News 20 years ago.
“They estimated it cost $2.3 million per person to keep someone on death row,” he said. “That’s three times what it costs to keep someone in prison. It involves more lawyers and more experts and their time is more expensive. They also need to allocate staff.”
Lucio, who represents the Rio Grande Valley, said that as pro-life Catholics, it is important to protect all life and be consistent about it.
“We’re seeing a significant shift,” he said, noting that in years past Texas averaged about 30 death sentences a year. Within the last year, it’s averaged about 10. So far this year, it’s been two.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, this country has executed 1,398 people between 1986 and 2014. Texas executed 518 of those people –– or 38 percent. The next highest number of executions in the same period came from Oklahoma, which executed 112 people.
Deacon López said the death penalty is a “lose-lose” proposition. Having witnessed several executions, the executions do not seem to bring closure to victims’ families.
“They think it will, but they walk away feeling just the same,” he said. “Nobody wins.”
Pope Francis in his Sept. 24 address to Congress became the latest pope to call for an end to the death penalty. However, a majority of people in the U.S. still support it.
A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 51 percent of Catholics support capital punishment.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is acceptable if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives.”
But in 1995, St. John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, stated that “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the right to reform.”
Since Susie’s death, Yaeger-Lane has co-founded Journey of Hope ... from Violence to Healing, which is led by family members of murder victims that conducts public education speaking tours and addresses alternatives to the death penalty.
“So no, don’t do it in Susie’s name,” Jaeger-Lane said of capital punishment. “And not in my name. I hope the day comes when Texans will say, ‘not in my name.’”
These are some groups organized in opposition to the death penalty:
Journey of Hope: www.journeyofhope.org.
Texas Mercy Project: www.txcatholicmercyproject.org.
Catholic Mobilizing Network: www.catholicsmobilizing.org.
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: www.tcadp.org.