Dead Man Praying

Recently, there has been much talk and action about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty The reasons vary, but the point is the same. It is a punishment both extreme and permanent. It is imposed under a system that is imperfect at best and sometimes simply corrupt. This moratorium movement should be applauded because it is righteous.

However, the ultimate success of that movement will not solve the problems we face today. Instead, we need a moratorium on political and moral cowardice. We need to return to a society in which our appointed and elected officials have the courage to lead. That movement, and none other, offers the only hope that we can conquer the societal problems we face entering the 21st century.

I was one of many people who had the honor of representing Darrell Young Elk Rich over the past years. He died some 13 minutes past midnight on March 15, 2000. He was executed in the "death chamber" at San Quentin State Prison. I saw him die with dignity.
Young Elk's last message was a single word: "Peace." His last meal was donated to feed the homeless. His last thoughts were filled with sadness, sorrow and forgiveness.

Young Elk never contested the horrific wrongs he committed. He sat in his 400 cubic foot cell on Death Row for nineteen years. During that time he lived with the haunting thoughts of what he had done. Every day, he expressed remorse and asked forgiveness for his sins.

Very early in his childhood, Young Elk was told by his adoptive mother that he was "Indian." But that was all he knew. During the years of his incarceration, he studied and learned about his Native American heritage. When Young Elk finally received his adoption papers in 1990, what he had always known was confirmed; he was Native American. The Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoption Records listed both his parents as "Indian/Irish."

From that point on, Young Elk meticulously traced his ancestry to learn who he was and to pass this knowledge on to his son. He sat quietly in his cell, researched his social history, and learned his native ways. He practiced writing the Cherokee alphabet, and even learned to speak and write some of the language.

Shortly before his execution, Young Elk discovered that his maternal greatgrandmothers and his paternal greatgrandfather were full-blood Cherokee. He was proud of his ancestry. That is why it was so important to have the prison change his race identification, and have everyone refer to him as Young Elk, a name he had taken and then had been bestowed on him by his Native American spiritual advisor.

Although Young Elk learned that he was descended from the Great Cherokee Nation, he practiced pan-Indian religion, which was taught to him by his Native American Spiritual Advisors. He practiced his Native American religion for over a decade. He was a member of the American Indian Spiritual Group at San Quentin.

As part of his religious teaching, he learned that the Sacred Sweat Lodge Ceremony is one of the highest forms of spiritual practice for Native Americans. He learned that it is used to purify the mind, body and spirit and to cleanse the soul. He was taught that the Sweat Lodge Ceremony was necessary for him to prepare to cross over to the next world to meet his Creator and to face those whom he had harmed while on Earth.

Young Elk took these teachings seriously In 1996 and 1997, he contacted the Indian Law Clinic in Colorado, seeking assistance in gaining access to the Native American Sweat Lodge located in San Quentin State Prison. Sweat Lodge Ceremonies have been held at San Quentin for non-death row inmates since the 1980s, yet the prison denied both his requests.

Young Elk's legal appeals ended in January of this year. He sought clemency from the Governor. It was denied.

Young Elk had one last wish before his death -- he asked the warden if he could go to his church, the Sacred Sweat Lodge Ceremony Under Young Elk's religion, his last rites would be conducted through this Ceremony. There, he could truly express his remorsefulness in a way that is acceptable to the Spirits with his prayers, sacraments and offerings. Leonard Foster, a Spiritual Advisor and member of the Navajo Nation was going to conduct the Sweat Lodge Ceremony.

Warden Jeanne Woodford denied the request alleging general "security reasons" regarding all death row inmates. She said nothing to suggest that Young Elk posed a particular security concern. Indeed, she could not because he posed no risk: He was a peaceful man on the row. He had an excellent record in prison. He was never a danger to anyone in the institution. He weighed only 140 pounds, and had a severe debilitating spinal disease that required him to be transported by wheelchair throughout the prison.

Warden Woodford refused to explain why the Arizona Department of Corrections was able to safely comply with a similar request by death row inmate Darrick Gerlaugh while the California Department of Corrections could not accommodate Young Elk's religious beliefs. In January of 1999, Young Elk's spiritual advisor, Leonard Foster, performed a Sweat Lodge Ceremony with Mr. Gerlaugh before his execution. It occurred without incident, just as all the Sweat Lodge Ceremonies that have been conducted in 96 prisons across the country, including the ones held at San Quentin have been peaceful.

Young Elk turned to the federal courts. He also repeatedly asked Governor Davis - and even President Clinton - to intervene and allow him to participate in the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. He did not seek a stay of his execution, and he did not challenge his sentence after the United States Supreme Court denied his appeal in January. He only asked to be allowed to go to church. All he sought were his last rites according to his Native American religion.

As a result of the failure of the executive and judicial systems to step in, the State of California extinguished Young Elk's life without allowing him to make the spiritual preparations required by his faith. The denial of this request is filled with tragic irony.

Some two hundred years ago, our European ancestors came to this land in the hopes of securing their religious freedom. This goal was so important to our Anglo descendants that it became the opening words to the First Amendment to the Constitution.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of." Yet, from that moment on, the dominant American society began a campaign to outlaw Native American religions, and more tragically, to annihilate the Native American population.

The efforts of the white majority to totally eliminate Native American religions ultimately failed. Over the past thirty years, there has been a very strong revival of native religions, which are often "pan-Indian in nature." This Native American religion has spread across America, including the prisons. Leonard Foster has been a spiritual advisor for nearly 1500 Native American inmates in almost 100 state and federal prisons throughout the United States.

To deny a person the right to attend his church and practice his religion before he is executed is simply indecent, a violation of the most basic of human rights. At best, the refusal to grant this basic right to a Native American can be explained by plain ignorance, and at worst, it can be explained only by pure racism.

In the days and hours leading up to the execution, repeated pleas to Governor Davis to intervene with San Quentin State Prison were simply ignored. He never responded to my written requests, nor did he have the decency to return my telephone calls. Despite an eleventh hour call from me while sitting at the prison waiting to witness Young Elk's execution, Governor Davis never responded. He had gone home for the evening without bothering to tell Young Elk why his spiritual needs were being ignored.

In the end, the branches of government and the responsible authorities to whom we appealed for a final act of human decency and grace - and most significantly Governor Davis all proved to be political and moral cowards. As a society, we deserve more from our leaders. We deserve the strength and courage that comes from righteousness and, yes, a measure of compassion, not pettiness and political pandering.

Professor Stephen Russell, a former Judge and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, wrote on behalf of Young Elk:

"The inmate is about to executed for his crimes. It is customary in the dominant culture for men in his situation to prepare themselves spiritually. If I were in the inmate's circumstance, I would be petitioning the court for a sweat, because that is the best purification ceremony I could expect the prison to tolerate.

The inmate is, to coin a phrase, "dead man praying." To deny him the opportunity of those prayers is racial discrimination and gratuitous cruelty."

Indeed, it was!

We won't know whether Young Elk made it safely to the Spirit World until we travel our own journey at the end of our days on Earth. But those of us who were close to him believe that he was successful. In the end, the State of California's callous rejection of Young Elk's spiritual needs was no match for the sincerity of his remorse and the prayers of others who believe in forgiveness and redemption.


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