By Michael Stone
The term "vigil," taken from the Latin vigilia, means wakefulness. In religious traditions, a vigil is a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance in anticipation of a feast day. Mardi Gras is a curious type of vigil, giving people an outlet for indulging in sensual delights before the 40 day Lenten period of fasting and self-denial.
In the death penalty abolition movement, vigils are held all across the country whenever the state executes a death row inmate. People of faith are often in the forefront of organizing these vigils. They seek to bear public witness in protest of state killing.
Such public witness is as old as organized religion. In the Hebrew Scriptures prophets came to centers of power to denounce actions by secular leaders that violated their religious law. Such prophets often met persecution, sometimes event death.
Today abolitionists who are motivated by faith consider their participation in execution vigils as a type of prophetic action, denouncing state killing as a violation of God's law. Non-religious protesters also participate as a way to express an emphatic public "no" to the state's action of purposely taking a life.
Many people begin their involvement in the abolition movement through participation in execution vigils. I was one of these people.
Weeks after moving to Richmond in 1984, I attended a candlelight vigil in front of the Virginia penitentiary where the execution was to take place. I was one of 40 people standing silently outside the prison wall.On the other side of the busy four lane road was a raucous rally of over a hundred people who held placards with ugly messages and yelled racist chants like “burn the N-word.”
In that moment my intellectual opposition to capital punishment became a passionate personal commitment. My Catholic faith told me that a public policy that encouraged such hateful and racist displays had to be deeply evil and must be overturned.
For Mark Elliott, Executive Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), it was the killing of a Jewish prisoner by the state that put him on the road to abolish capital punishment.
Terry Sims was the first Florida prisoner put to death by lethal injection in February 2000. Mark recalls that day:
"I went to the execution vigil across the street from the prison to find answers as to why we were still killing prisoners, now that there was no chance they could ever be paroled. A rabbi was leading a group in prayer and spoke to me of the unimaginable irony of choosing a Jew to be the first prisoner killed by lethal injection.
He explained that it was in Hitler’s Germany where this method of execution was first developed and it was used to kill Jews. We were deeply troubled by the revival of this horrific legacy. I made a vow to learn more about Florida’s Death Penalty program."
As Mark puts it, “the more I learned about the death penalty, the less I liked it.” As a result, he got involved with Amnesty International and subsequently became its volunteer State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator.
Do you attend execution vigils in your state? If so, we at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty would love for you to share your experience at vigils. Share a story or a photo with us!
From 2011 to 2013 Michael Stone of Richmond, Virginia worked a field organizer for the National Coalition.