Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not execute inmate Patrick Murphy if they did not allow his Buddhist chaplain into the death chamber with him. In response, last Thursday, the state of Texas decided to ban all chaplains from entering the death chamber with inmates.
Patrick Murphy’s situation echoes the story of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray. Ray, who was executed in February, requested to have his imam be present with him in the execution chamber. Ultimately, his request was denied and Ray was put to death without the presence of his chaplain.
Chaplains serve many roles in the final moments of an inmate's life, including comforting family members, says Earl Smith, who served for decades as a death row chaplain in San Quentin State Prison in California. When they’re kept from inmates in their final moments, it can mean there’s no one who is able to relay the individual’s last words.
“That inmate was looking for a way to say ‘bye’ in peace and because you said ‘No, you can’t have [the chaplain],’ even in his death, there was no peace,” said Smith. “We often say that when they’re executed there’s going to be closure. Executions don’t bring closure. They just mean someone has died.”
Smith joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and theology editor Caleb Lindgren to discuss why Christians should want all death row inmates to be able to be with their chosen chaplain when they die, what it’s like to spiritually walk with prisoners, and the surprising circumstances that led to Smith winding up at San Quentin.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Bloodline, the new book by Skip Heitzig, gives you an up-close view of the cross that reveals God’s ultimate mission to save you from sin’s destruction. Bloodline is available wherever books are sold.
What is “Quick to Listen”? Read more
Subscribe to Quick to Listen on Apple Podcasts
Follow the podcast on Twitter
Visit Chaplain Earl. A Smith’s website
Read Ted Olsen’s editorial: Religious Freedom Isn’t Just for Christians
Music by Sweeps
April 10, 2019 transcription
Morgan Lee: I'm joined by my co-host this week, who is Caleb Lindgren our theology editor. Hey, Caleb.
Caleb Lindgren: Hi, Morgan. Good to be back on the podcast. This week on the podcast we have Rev. Earl Smith who's currently the chaplain for the 49ers and the Warriors. San Francisco area, which is awesome. And then he's also heads up a ministry, or is involved with a ministry, called Concerned About Recovery Education or CARE. He was the youngest chaplain ever hired by the California Department of Corrections and was a Correctional Chaplain of the Year in 2000. He wrote a book about some of his experiences called Death Row Chaplain, and let's is why we have him on because we want to hear about those.
So, Rev. Smith, it's a pleasure to have you on.
Rev. Earl Smith: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity, Caleb and Morgan. Thank you so much.
Morgan Lee: Last month the Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not execute inmate Patrick Murphy if Texas did not allow his Buddhist chaplain into the death chamber with. And in response to the Supreme Court's decision, last Thursday the State of Texas basically put out a ban that banned all chaplains from entering the death chamber with inmates.
Patrick Murphy's situation kind of echoes the story of Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray. So, Ray was executed back in February, and before he was executed, he requested to have his imam, who had ministered to him for years, to be present with him in the execution chamber. However, instead the warden refused citing prison policy, but then there was a subsequent investigation, and a court case that revealed that there was no officially documented policy that would have denied Ray's request. However, unlike in the case of Patrick Murphy, the Supreme Court ruled against Ray and they said that his complaint had come too close to his execution date.
So, in the April issue of Christianity Today, our editorial director—whom some of you guys know from when he's been on the podcast before, Ted Olsen—he addressed Ray's case and he implored Christians to stand up for the rights of non-Christians. So, I'm just going to read a couple sentences from that. This is what Ted wrote. He said,
When we advocate on behalf of Muslims and other religious minorities, the Golden Rule dovetails with making common cause, aggressive secularization and government overreach. But if you only argue for the religious liberty of your friends and co-religionists, what's the point? Even pagans do that. We who know true freedom do not want to use our own freedom for self-indulgence, but to serve others humbly in love. Advocating for religious freedom is not just about what's good for Christians. It's also about being Christians.
So, this week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to talk about the role of death row prison chaplains, what they offer to inmates, and why Christians should fight for all inmates to be able to be with their chosen chaplain when they die. So, I would like to just do a gut check here Caleb, especially now that we've kind of had back-to-back stories about this particular incident. What is going through your mind when you hear these stories?
Caleb Lindgren: I guess dismay. I can't, I can't fathom why—and they're probably well, maybe there aren't, but I could imagine there may be good reasons for why you wouldn't allow a religious leader or minister of any faith into a death chamber. But I don't know why you wouldn't allow the last wishes of a dying man to be honored. I don't think the state, I don't think society, has anything to lose. And then as a Christian, as somebody of deep faith, it's sad to see the rights of people with deep faith violated in that way. And it does concern me. In Ted's editorial, he was concerned about aggressive secularization, and I echo those concerns. I think sometimes they're overblown, there's a lot of like sky's falling rhetoric out there, and I don't know that we need to go that far. But I am concerned that that sort of, that aspect of reality, particularly when it hits on one of the most sacred moments of somebody's life—as they are passing away— that that's not honored. And that our society at least is willing to equivocate on some of that, is willing to sort of, I don't know deny somebody's rights in that kind of context makes me worried about other things. And what the respect for deeply-held faith convictions of any stripe is, what the status of the respect for those are in our society.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, I think I actually feel a harsher action than dismay because it seems like, again based on these types of responses, there's also some sort of like personal element in there that seems really blatantly unfair. I mean, if you want to have your chaplain in there, no one in here—it seemingly is suggesting that this person will save them from not dying in a certain sense. Obviously, like the physical sense. But this has been obviously a right that's been extended to many Christians, right? It's only kind of come to a head when we've had people of minority faiths that have wanted to be able to have their religious leader in there.
Caleb Lindgren: Morgan, Caleb, I just wonder why would someone that is a Christian be concerned or upset that someone from another faith would want to have their chaplain present. It doesn't do anything to our faith. It doesn't do anything to the practice of our faith. The only thing it does is bring calmness to a person that is about to die. To exclude that person from the opportunity to minister and say the things that that guy or woman—because there are women on death row as well—as they prepare to die. I think Christians, the compassion that we should have should be able to overlook what we—I mean, their faith practice is a decision they made. We know what we believe, and we know where we're going as a result of what we believe. That won't change in that moment for that person, and we are saying no one can be with you, I don't see where that solves anything. Reading both the articles from Texas and Alabama, what was served by that?
Morgan Lee: In your experience, what is the role that chaplains often play in the lives of these inmates?
Rev. Earl Smith: When I got the message that you wanted to do this on death row, I just had to reflect, and I realize I realized that I was still holding some pain because April of 1992 is when California held their first execution in 26 years. And it was Robert Alton Harris and I was the person who had to walk them into the execution chamber. And I thought after knowing Robbie for the years I knew him, ministering to him late at night, past midnight in some cases, and carrying the Word, having studies with men on the row, and seeing them have their faith grow.
I mean I've had men that were on death row that I've had escorted over in chains to be baptized. I mean, the role of the chaplain in whatever the faith is to encourage the growth of your faith. We are people that represent hope, yet when you're dealing with death row, you're dealing with finality. So, there's a hope element but also the reality of finality that you have to be able to share with guys or women who are on death row.
Morgan Lee: You're often walking with these people for a number of years, correct? I mean death row is not this short stint before, you know, you get the lethal injection, right? Many of these people spend even more than a decade or maybe two decades?
Rev. Earl Smith: More than two decades on the row, California, you know San Quentin, where they have the bells that are on death row, we actually went to court and had them build a chapel or a facility for guys on death row for chapel services on a weekly basis. So, we have Bible study, we encourage to the best of our ability for faith to grow, we encourage them, we have to minister to them when their family members pass away. And it doesn't negate it all, and I think that's what people have to understand. The role of the chapel is not to negate at all the role of the courts and society and the sentence that's been handed down. We are called to show compassion. As a chaplain going into a prison and working with men on death row, my role is not to even asked them why they were there or what they did, but it's to look beyond that because that's society's role. Society's role is to have a court of your peers sit, and you sit before them, and they determine a sentence. For me, as a chaplain, or other chaplains, my role is to share in my faith Christ, and in sharing Christ hope that that person comes to a relationship and grows from that relationship.
Morgan Lee: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you ended up as a chaplain to the inmates on death row.
Rev. Earl Smith: Grew up a gang member, 19 years old I was shot six times, I went to the hospital, my dad arrived there, the doctor says I was going to die. My dad grabs the guy and says, you do what you do best, I'm going to do what I do best. My father goes away to pray, and as I'm left in that room by myself—and this is a 1976, 1975—the Word of God comes to me and says very clearly, you're not going to die, I have something for you to do, you got to be a chaplain at San Quinten prison. That was in '75.
Morgan Lee: What did you think when you heard that message?
Rev. Earl Smith: I laughed. Because you know, you realize that you deserve what you got. I deserved it. It was not personal, it was just business, and I deserved to be shot. I deserved everything that happened to me in that moment. And because I had grown up in the church there was no doubt who is speaking to me. Yet, it was funny in the minute, in the midst of my pain, that He would want to bring compassion and speak to me. I mean when I heard that voice, then all the bleed[ing], the hurt, the pain that I felt from being shot, it all stopped. I didn't feel any more pain. And I laughed, the doctor came in, I said if I tell you where the bullets are will that help? He said no, and I pointed at my nose and my face where I'd been shot, at my neck and my back and everywhere I pointed the bleeding stopped. The doctor didn't understand that. I'd been shot six times, I had seven holes in me, and we know that that's a sign of universality, that's a sign of Christ. And so, it went from six to seven and it was filled by Him. And in '75, He said you're going to be a chaplain.
When I announced my call to the ministry, they said what is God telling you to do? I said, only thing I know is I'm supposed to be a chaplain at San Quentin prison. And people sort of said okay and laughed. I graduated from undergrad school, I had to change my degree—I had to change what I said I was going to do, my career objective because they said it wasn't realistic for someone with my background to ever be a chaplain in the prison. I knew that God, that's what he called me to do, that's what he said I would do. I get hired by the Boy Scouts, I go to a service club meeting, I need a Salvation Army chaplain, and somehow he says, "Hey didn't you say that you were going to be, that God told you to be a chaplain in prison? I said, "Yeah." He says, "Well, there's an opening at San Quentin." I said okay, a few weeks later he comes back. He says, "Did you ever apply?" I said, "Man, not yet." He said, "I didn't think so. Here's the application, fill it out." I fill the application out, I go through this whole process, and I get a letter saying, "Dear Rev. Smith, we're sorry to inform you that you are not qualified." I get upset, throw the letter down, the Lord says call them and ask for what you should do, what do you need to do to be qualified. I call and there's a silence on the other end and they say, "Rev. Smith, we're sorry. We sent you the wrong letter, you are qualified." I went to the interview, they hired someone else. Five months later, that person was dismissed. They called me and asked me was I still interested, and of course I was because that's what God—so I never applied for any other chaplain position, no other prison, because the only thing God told me was, I was going to be a chaplain at San Quentin. And that's where I went.
Morgan Lee: What was your first day of work like?
Rev. Earl Smith: For me it was like this overwhelming sense of joy. Like, okay God I finally made it where you told me I was going to be, I walked—people say they hear all the clinging of the gates and all that as you go through this whole process of getting—I don't remember any of that. Only thing I remember is getting there and being able to walk to the chapel. And when I saw the chapel, I was like wow, this is it. I see all the inmates walking around and they're sweeping and cleaning the chapel, waxing. And they look at me and said, "Who are you?" I said, "Well, I'm the chaplain." And they said, you know, it's like they like they laughed. I was 27 years old and you know, I didn't have a clue of what I was really supposed to do other than be there because that's what God told me. I didn't have a clue.
Morgan Lee: Wow, so you end up in this particular situation where you're in this position. How do you how did you go about building relationships with the different inmates that were there?
Rev. Earl Smith: I started off just looking at them. I call it a Job principle. That's what I label it as. Where his friends came, they saw him his grief and his misery and said nothing. They just simply sat, watched, observed for seven days. And I think that for what I did is I just observed, I watch what was going on, I took mental notes, I talked to people when they said things, I took notes. They taught me how to be a chaplain by the experiences that they shared, and it was a lot of just listening. At first, it was just a lot of listening because I realized that they had—a lot of the stories were not true that they were telling me. It was their story. So, I said, even if it's not true, it's their story and I'll listen. And so, I sort of grew from there.
And then I played chess, and in prison guys like to play chess. And I was pretty good. And because I was a pretty good chess player, I challenge guys to play chess. And that was really how I started to grow because I would beat people and the inmates would all recall the piece, the moves, all over the unit where I was playing. And when I beat 'em then all of a sudden other people wanted to play me, so it's sort of like one of those deals.
Caleb Lindgren: That's great. When was the first time you got to go to death row and meet some of those guys and gals?
Rev. Earl Smith: The first week I was there. The units I was assigned to, one was called The Adjustment Center and guys that were on death row were in there. I had the other unit was Carson, and that's where the overflow death row was. But when I—you have to understand, when I started working there was only, I think it was like 91 men on death row when I started. And when I left, it was 670.
Morgan Lee: Wow, so the criminal justice system really changed during that time, huh?
Rev. Earl Smith: Yeah, what I learned—because I sort of tracked it—and even years, election years, more people were sentenced to death than other years. And so all off, odd years, there wouldn't be as many people and so the system sort of grew because there was no one being executed. So, naturally you had to have more cells available, and it kept growing and growing. And as it grew, you know, there were more people on my caseload. I had a guy, two guys, Benjamin Harderstir and Larry Browning, that were volunteers that work with me, and we would just decide we're going to take this unit and one day a week we would get in there early and we would not leave until every guy was seen by us. And we talked to every single man, and that was how we started to do the ministry. We never left a guy where he felt like he didn't get a chance to speak to someone, and because of that they look forward to us coming. And because they look forward to us coming, we were able to share our faith. And our presence shared or faith sometimes more than our words. Like with Job's friends.
Morgan Lee: So, I'm curious how when you're having conversations and building relationships with the inmates, how do you broach the topic of the crime that brought them there in the first place?
Rev. Earl Smith: I don't. Because the crime does not make a difference to me. I mean, there's some horrific things that people have done. And I always think because I was a drug dealer, gang member, and all of the stuff I've done—I mean all the stuff I've done, and somehow in the midst of all my stuff, God was able to peel away something and say there's still grace and mercy prepared and it had my name on it. So, me trying to ask these guys what they did, it didn't make a difference to me in a sense because what they did was not going to change. So, I would tell people all the time, you may have committed a crime, but are you your crime? Are you that murderer? Are you that person? And I had little children when I started, and I would just think about my children, but yet I could not go to the point of worrying about what crime they committed because being a human being, being a the person that I am, if I started to focus on the crime, I felt like I could not do the ministry I was called to do. Because I would have some jaded opinions about the person based on me knowing more about what their crime was.
Morgan Lee: So, as you began to build these relationships and sustain them over the years that you worked at the prison, what was it like to see people either become Christians or grow in their faith?
Rev. Earl Smith: For me, that was the most exciting thing about being able to be a chaplain in a prison. In the ministry, in the communities, and local churches, you sort of see people walk up and they make a decision to accept Christ, and you may see him the next Sunday, or the maybe one day of the week on Sunday. Yet, when you see these guys that make a decision, you see them on a regular basis, and you see that either they're growing, they truly embraced what they've said or they're not. And the chaplain's role, if you are going to be a chaplain, is to call, correct, and challenge. And so, if a man says to me that I made a decision for Christ, I baptize them, then my role is to bring to remembrance what he did and continue to say to him and challenge him, "Are you living that? Are you truly living that?" And so, for me to see those guys that make a transfer— you know, they talk about rehabilitation in prison, and it's not really rehabilitation. It's regeneration. It's regeneration, which means it doesn't come by man, it comes by the Holy Spirit. And so, for me, the regeneration process it's exciting, it's truly exciting.
Morgan Lee: I am not completely up-to-date on California's history with the death penalty, but what I think I understand is that they did suspend the death penalty for a period of time, which was when you got there. And then as you mentioned in 1992, I guess was when they began to resume it?
Rev. Earl Smith: Well, they suspended it in '78. They resumed it as a penalty, as a process, in '79—or '79 discontinued, '80, somewhere in that time. They brought it back, yet no one was executed. And there had not been any executions for a number of years. So, there were people that have been sentenced to death after they stopped the death penalty. They reintroduced it and people were sentenced to death, yet they had not been executed. So, currently we have a moratorium in California on executions, the governor just announced that a couple weeks ago. So, there's no one that's on condemned row now that will be executed while he's the governor. Yet, they'll still be people—the numbers are still going to go up. There's still going to be people that are going to be sentenced to death. And so even when there were no executions until the day that Robbie was executed and that was an April—that was April 21st, 1992— there were still people coming on death row.
Morgan Lee: How did you spiritually prepare yourself for Robbie's execution?
Rev. Earl Smith: I had to write a procedure. I had the write a protocol because I realized there was nothing in writing that told me what I was supposed to do in the instance of an execution. Who was I supposed to minister to? How was I supposed to? So, a lot of my preparation was writing that protocol. And I started in a really strange place because I'd been ministering to Robbie for so long, but I also realized there were going to be people on the execution team, and I needed to minister to those people because after the execution they needed to be okay. I needed to minister to the witnesses that were family members to some extent because they were going to see something that I don't know if they were prepared for. The inmate's family members are going to be there. So, I started making this list of all the different people that needed ministry. Because I knew I was going to be with Robbie every day, but I needed to figure out, "God, how can I be a presence in these other groups' lives so that this process won't damage them for life?" So that was sort of how I prepared.
Prayer. I spoke to my pastor, Bishop Donald Green, on a regular basis. I mean, regular basis. He would pray with me and just sort of give me the encouragement to be strong in a process that I knew nothing about, and no one could really, there was no one alive that could tell me what I needed to do in terms of the Death Row process for San Quentin. So, I had to write it, and that was part of my process.
Caleb Lindgren: So, it sounds like you learned a lot from that process. I'm curious what are the things you might have learned that someone who's not involved with the criminal justice system at all or hasn't been to death row wouldn't know about how that process works. And how a chaplain in particular is a part of that.
Rev. Earl Smith: Well, I think first and foremost, what I learned is as I've stated over and over again, do not focus on the crime. Focus on the individual. As a chaplain or anyone. Take it for granted that the crime is the crime. Yet, if we think about Christ, he's Jesus the Christ, and he's the Christ because he hangs on a cross and while he's hanging there, there's two people. They're both condemned as well, yet want in the process simply says, "Will you remember me?" And He says, "This day you'll be with me in Paradise." So even in the midst of Him dying, even in the midst of Him being on death row, He took pause to say to someone that said to Him, "I'm sorry, I realized now that there's something different for my life." And he says, "You'll be with me."
So, I just simply say that as a Christian chaplain, my job is simply to tell people about Christ. People that are in the community, if you just can, if you focus on the Christ element, if you focus on the Christ element and not the crime—let's take the crime as a given and let's just say, is there anyone that does not need Christ? Is there anyone that is not worthy of the Christ? And for me, I can't say no to that. I can't say that because of who I am and what I've done in my life. I think anyone—I don't want anyone to die without the opportunity to know Christ. I just don't want that to happen.
Morgan Lee: So, I'm curious then, after Robbie was executed, how did that affect you spiritually?
Rev. Earl Smith: It really hurt me. I mean, the thing that happened with Robbie, the week before his execution I was home having dinner with my family, my prison phone rings, I get up from the table and grab the phone. It's right in the room where the table is, the dinner table, and it's Robbie. And he says, "Hey, this is Rob." "Yeah, well I'll be there as soon as I finish dinner." I thought he was calling because he was wondering what time I was coming. He says, "No, I'm calling because I want to speak to your children." I said, "Huh?" He says, "Well you said... is it okay if I speak to your daughter and your son?" So, I say to my wife, "This is Robbie, he wants to talk to the kids." She says, "Talk to them?" I said yeah, and so she says okay, which is my wife understanding beyond my understanding. And he tells my daughter, "I understand that you are against the death penalty, and I just want to let you know your dad talks about you, and I'm praying for you and keep doing what you're doing and keep believing the way you're believing." He tells my son, "Your dad talks about you and he says that you are in favor of the death penalty." And these are little kids that we've had these conversations, because I wanted them to know what dad was doing because Dad's name was in the paper, and people were talking about that. And I wanted them to know. And they're young. They're young. And he says, "keep believing the way you're believing," and he says, "your dad says you're a baseball player, and next game hit a home run for me."
And so, Robbie called and because I had been talking to him about my children but talking to my children about the process because the process does not just affect the person that's doing the ministry, it affects their family. My children were younger, they were in elementary school, and people all around the world was talking about this execution of Robbie Harris. There were all these TV cameras and trucks, and we lived on the grounds of the prison, and our kids would come home and have to go through media to get to the house on the bus. And so, I wanted them to know what was going on, and I wanted to know what their opinions was. And my daughter was against the death penalty, my son was for it, and in the process, Robbie called and told then both of, you're right. He never said, I don't deserve what I'm getting. When Robbie accepted the Lord, he had peace with what was going to happen to him, and he started trying to figure out how can I share this peace with other people?
So, it was interesting watching Robbie as the execution came, yet on the day of the execution I'm walking him into the gas chamber, and he stops. And so, everyone gets nervous, and he says to these four men that are walking him, he says, "I need you to know this is nothing personal. I know you're just doing your job." And he says, "That I've been praying for you." And so that was the first thing. Then he looks at the warden and says, "You know, I had a lot of bad thoughts about you." He says, "But Chaplain Smith says you're a good man, and he says you like to fish, and maybe someday you'll get to heaven with me and we'll be able to go fishing." Then I walked them into the chamber, and I stood there as they strapped him in. And we waited and we waited and then there was a stay of execution. So, they take them out, and when they take them out, those four men that he had said those words to, as they're walking them back to this death chamber, they say to him, "Harris, we knew if anyone could do it, you could do it." They were so excited. And I believe that those words they were sharing was because of the peace he gave them.
We go back to the chamber, phone rings as his attorney says, "hey I've got good news and bad news." "What's the good news?" "You got a stay." "Yes, I know it. What's the bad news?" "It's only for four hours." And that's when I broke down. There's two cells in the death chamber area, and I went to the corner wall away from Rob and I just broke down because I wondered. I said, "God, we finally got him there to that point where there was unbelievable peace in that moment, and then this." And Robbie just fell on the mattress that was in that in that cell, and you know, we have played our last game of chess, and we had said our good-byes, and yet here we were. We're going to have four more hours of, what do we do now? What do we do now? What do we do now that we've already said goodbye and yet goodbye was not goodbye?
You still minister. So, what I did was the only thing I know to do. I took out the Word and just started to read different scriptures to him. And when I walk him back in, and I knew this time they were going to do it, they had a camera that they wanted to film it so they can see if it was cruel and unusual punishment. And after he was pronounced dead, there was a cheer that went up, and everyone rushed out of the execution chamber. And they left the camera rolling. And was just me, the camera, and Robbie. And I looked at him slumped over in that chair, with that camera red light flashing, and before he had gone he said this to me—he says, "You know, if everything you said about this Christ that I've accepted is true, there's going to be a white hearse waiting for me outside. That's what's going to carry me from here." A white hears. Well, when I get out the first thing I see when I walk out the door—and remember, there's no one in there now, but Robbie who is dead, this camera that still put flickering, is still on. And I open up the door and there's this white hearse waiting outside.
And for me that was God affirming that this work that He had called me to, although difficult, was part of the task of what He told me to do, and He was going to be with me and be present with me throughout all of it. I had unbelievable pain because of the length of time I had ministered to him, yet when I saw that hearse, I saw Christ present for a moment just affirm and reassure me that He was there with me, and He would hold me up. And I needed it that like you wouldn't believe. I needed to know that Christ was still with me even after something like that.
Morgan Lee: I'm wondering then, just to kind of bring this conversation back to where we were talking in the beginning, it sounds like you were able to provide a lot of comfort, and reassurance, and to some extent companionship and solidarity to Robbie, because you were able to be there in person, rather than watching the execution take place, but you were right there with him.
Rev. Earl Smith: Well, yeah, and I mean we—in California you're not in the—I mean, executions, original execution for us was gas. So naturally, we were not in the chamber. And so, our goodbyes were standing there while they strapped you in the chair. And so, we never moved to a different process even when we went through lethal injection. We never moved. What we did was, the inmate knew that we would walk them in, stay there with them until they had strapped them in, then we would walk around to a place where we could look at him outside of the chamber, and while we're looking at him also, I will tell the other chaplains, what we're doing also is being a presence for the other people that—because people don't know what they're going to see. I mean, you don't grow up one day to say I want to watch a person die. So, you don't know what you're going to see, you don't know. And so, you minister. W
hat they've done with these two cases that you're talking about, with Domineque Ray and Patrick Murphy, they were denied—they said, "well, you can't be in the chamber with them." I don't know if they're saying that they can't walk them into the chamber. If their process was to allow a person to stand there with that person, and whether standing there, praying with them, or saying words that person heard which were words of peace as he died—then if that was the state's process, then they should allow that process to go forth, and to deny that to—and what happens, inmates communicate among themselves. So, they're telling a guy on death row you're less than. Well, you already told me I was less than. I did a crime and because I did that crime I'm blessed in and I'm sent to death row, so I understand that, I've done that. I understand you're going to execute me, which is the law of the State. I understand that. I don't understand why I can't have that person, that has been giving me comfort for number of years, still be present like the other inmates can. What makes me less than less than?
And I believe as Christians, we fight for all people. And it's not about their faith. It's about the confidence and the liberty that we have in Christ. That I would tell people all the time, I'm not concerned about someone who's a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever the faith may be, because I have so much confidence in my faith relationship with Christ as a Christian that what they determined to be does not change who I am. And I believe some people don't have the same level of confidence, so they're afraid. Why would you be afraid as a Christian of someone else? Your faith and your belief is in there's no one but Christ, there's no other person. You know, He says, "I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be also." If you believe that, then whatever anyone else does if they don't accept that that's their decision. But you have to have faith in yours to the point that you—if that's their safe practice, does that bother, does that interfere with your relationship with Christ? I say, no. It should not.
Caleb Lindgren: Good word. I wanted to, well first off, thank you for sharing that. I wanted to return to the something that you had said about being there, not just for the inmate who is being executed, but also for everyone else that's observing it and for the families as well. Which is something that I confess, I had not thought about. And I wondered if that also plays into why it's important to you for chaplains to be present. Is for the for everyone else as well. And that why it may have been important, for in these two cases, for these men to have chaplains present for them. Because they were also maybe even thinking about those other people as well.
Rev. Earl Smith: That is very important, and people sort of see the person laying on the gurney. They don't necessarily see the people that have to push the plunger, pull the lever in our case—we started with gas. That person that's pushing plunger, that person that's pulling the lever, they know that they're involved in death. Those people need to be ministered to. And if you're in the back with them, or in that area with them, then you're present. Now your faith may be different than this person who was a Muslim or Buddhist, yet somehow or another there's a process of belief for the inmate. If their family are also, if that inmate's family is Muslim, does that family want to hear their imam say to them what the inmate was saying at the end? This Buddhist, do they want that monk to be able to say it?
And I can't tell you what questions, I can't tell you if the family are all Buddhists or it's just the inmate, because the inmates start to practice different faiths than their family when they're sent to prison in some cases. What I can tell you is that inmate was looking for a way to say bye in peace. And because you said no, you can't have that person, even in his death there was no peace. We possibly say that you know that when they're executed or whatever else they're going to be, there's going to be closure. Executions don't bring closure. It just means someone died. You're still are going to think about it, and if you're witness to an execution, you better know for sure that you're going to think about what you saw. And you're not going to just think about it and let it go. There's going to be moments when it comes back up and you're going to have to say—and maybe some people have joy with what they saw. Oh, I saw him die because of what he did. But you're still thinking, I saw someone died. And that's something you have to deal with.
Morgan Lee: How many executions were you present for?
Rev. Earl Smith: 12.
Morgan Lee: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing all of this really heavy stuff with us. We really appreciate—
Rev. Earl Smith: Yeah, I really apologize for—I really felt like, you know, it might have been too heavy. I just wanted to, you know, there's a reality around the death penalty that I hope people get to understand.
Caleb Lindgren: I think that more of us need to hear about that, more of us need to think about it and face it. I think that's really important. Regardless of what you think about the death penalty and the position you hold on it, I think it's important for us to think about that more. And so, I appreciate your being honest and being direct and sharing your experience. And I also appreciate, I at least was very encouraged by the way that God met you through the story you were telling about Robbie's death. It was a very difficult thing, but the way that God ministered to you and you were able to minister to him, was very encouraging to me. So, it wasn't simply just darkness, there was light as well. And I really much appreciated that so thank you.
Rev. Earl Smith: Thank you guys. And like I said, I have this—my book is called Death Row Chaplain, and I talk about the different guys who were on death row, and I talk about my experience in prison, and I talk about guys who are on death row and were exonerated and went home. I talk about what happened in that case. And so, you know, if you get a chance, I'd love for you to read it, you guys. I just think it's—and I'm not just saying it. I mean because you're talking about the death penalty, at this point that's something that's dear to my heart, even though I don't work in San Quentin anymore.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 63+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more