It was the usual horror, which is an oxymoron that too often defines our culture.
On Oct. 18, 1985, Roger Seamon Proctor and Dierdre Owens arrived at the home of 84-year-old Gerald Gase of Meadville, Pa. Owens knew Gase, and the plan was to rob him. Gase was kind enough to open his door to them.
Proctor, pretending he needed water, went to the kitchen, where he found a pair of scissors. He came back and stabbed Gase 57 times in the chest, side, back and face. While Gase lay dying on the floor of his home, Proctor ripped his wallet from his pants pocket and stole the grand sum of $100.
Proctor and Owens were caught. Owens was given a life sentence. Proctor was scheduled for execution. But then an odd thing happened.
After the governor of Pennsylvania had signed the death warrant in 2000, Gase's surviving relatives received an invitation to attend Proctor's execution. According to an article by Dennis Roddy in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the invitation included tips on what they should wear to the execution and suggestions for places to stay. It read like an invitation to a family wedding or a first Communion.
Gase's family, practicing Catholics, were shocked by the sterility of it all. With many opposed in conscience to the death penalty, including Gase's sister, an Ursuline nun, the invitation spurred them to act. They contacted Proctor and offered forgiveness. They contacted his attorney and offered help.
Because of their action, Proctor's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2003. Not because his guilt was in doubt; not because there had been some legal loophole. But because the family of a murdered old man wanted it that way.
The family stayed close to Proctor, "closer with the victim's family than he ever was with his family," Proctor's attorney said.
It was reported that Proctor became a model prisoner. One acquaintance went so far to describe him as a "good and gentle man" in those years after his sentence was commuted.
Gary Gilmore, however, was a ruthless killer and a punk. He had killed a gas station attendant and then a motel manager in cold blood for a few bucks. The usual horror. On Jan. 17, 1977, he was the first person executed after the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a series of death penalty statutes in 1976, effectively reversing a 1972 ban on capital punishment as unconstitutional.
Despite attempts to make him into a secular saint of opponents of capital punishment, Gilmore remained an arrogant jerk until his death by a five-man Utah firing squad. He had nothing but contempt for anyone who tried to prevent his execution.
Yet, after Gilmore was executed, I vowed that I would never support capital punishment again.
I'd like to present a laundry list of theological, ethical, moral and social reasons why I made that vow back then. But the real reason was revulsion. Five guys taking away everything that a human being was and everything that a human being could be in one orchestrated, legalized fuselage made me sick.
I had a similar epiphany on abortion. Just a kid in college, I wandered into a lab with my pre-med buddy and saw five jars containing fetuses at various stages of development, from mere weeks to near birth. I looked at that and vowed I could never support legalized abortion.
Proctor died a few weeks back at the age of 57. Pancreatic cancer. He died in the prison where he had spent the rest of his life since his commuted death sentence. The guards all said that he was a good guy to the end.
The murder victim's family saved him. Maybe in more ways than one.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.