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Forgiving The Dead Man Walking

By Debbie White
The 700 Club - The world knows her name now. The media coverage that swirled around the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998 was stunning and unprecedented.

But the Christian community remembers her for different reasons. Karla Faye challenged the evangelical community's entrenched views in support of the death penalty.

"There should always be a place for mercy," Karla Faye said before her death. "If we believe life is precious in abortion or in mercy killing, then shouldn't we believe life is precious in the death penalty."

Karla Faye made the death penalty personal.

"God took nothing and He made something," Karla said of herself. "God took this terrible person and showed me that I was worthy of his love."

Appearing on CNN's Larry King Live, Pat Robertson wrestled with the question of capital punishment in the case of Karla Faye Tucker.

"Anyone who knows Pat Robertson, knows that he favors capital punishment. Why are you standing up for Miss Tucker?" King inquired.

"Why? Because if there was ever a truly rehabilitated inmate, it was Karla Faye. And then the question becomes, is there no special dispensation we can give to the truly rehabilitated death row inmate? But that raises more questions, like who decides what true repentance and rehabilitation is?"

For radio talk show host Ken Hamblin, Karla Faye and her conversion was just another "hustle" in a prison full of hustlers.

"Karla Faye Tucker, wild woman that she was, after being snared and caged and compelled to pay for her debt against society found that she could use God, religion, or any other option to convince you that she ought not to die. I see that as an extension of the hustle they are willing to go to."

Not everyone feels like Ken Hamblin, but according to a survey done by Christianity Today, 81 % of all Christians agree with him in support of the death penalty -- more than in the general population.

This is even more remarkable when you consider that the Catholic Church and all major protestant denominations except the Southern Baptists have taken a stand against it. A scene from the recent film, Dead Man Walking, gives a glimpse of the scripture wars that Christians wage.

"I understand that you were protesting outside the gates during the last execution. Are you familiar with the Old Testament?" one person asks.

"Are you familiar with the New Testament where Jesus talks about grace and reconciliation?" the other responds.

"The conflict in the Christian community regarding this issue can't be oversimplified," says Dr. Lyle Story from Regent University's School of Divinity. "There are some issues and text that we need to wrestle with, like the 'eye for an eye' argument. This is an expression to say that in the legal system in the meting out of justice, that justice can never be expressed in ways that are more than eye for an eye. But it's not a command saying this is what you need to do."

Melody Smith, a death row lawyer points to the Gospels. "Jesus said, not an eye for an eye. There's something more powerful in us. There is love. There is compassion. Just as God's justice does not call for revenge, it calls for reconciliation and peace.

Smith is also an ordained minister who says her faith compels her to oppose the death penalty. That's what brings her out on a hot summer night to a mosquito-infested field outside Virginia's death row.

That' what brought Bill Pelke here, too. "Well, I try to think, 'what Jesus do?'" he declares.

And isn't that the question that makes pro-death penalty Christians squirm?

"When faced with the death penalty issue," Pelke continues, "Jesus said, 'whosoever is without sin cast the first stone.' I think if Jesus were here today, he'd say the same thing and we'd have to drop our tools of death. I can't see Jesus putting in the switch to the electric chair. I can't see him firing the bullet that goes through the heart like they do in Utah." What Bill can see is his gentle, devout grandmother. "I pictured how she died. She was stabbed 33 times with a 12 inch butcher knife."

This was a heinous crime committed by four teenage girls, one of whom was sentenced to death. But she never made it to death row & partly because of Bill Pelke.

"With tears coming out of my eyes, I begged God to give me a love and compassion for this girl and her family -- and to do it on behalf on my grandmother," Pelke remembers. "After I prayed that prayer, I thought, well, I can write this girl a letter. I can tell her about my grandmother, and share my grandmother's faith. Suddenly I knew that prayer had been answered."

"God had touched my heart with compassion," Bill continues. "I no longer wanted her to die and I knew immediately my life was changed and would never be the same again."

Remarkable -- but it still doesn't resolve the question about the state's right to kill Bill's grandmother's killer.

"There is a real God appointedness to those in authority in government in this country and other countries," says Dr. Story. "But I think it is a wrong inference then to jump to the conclusion that says that now the state has the power, the authority, the moral right to take a human life. That's a step beyond."

Chuck Colson has a mixed opinion. "I think there are cases where nothing else will suffice to balance the scales of justice."

Those words may surprise you coming from Chuck Colson. The Former Watergate conspirator who now heads an international prison ministry, was opposed to the death penalty for years because of his Christian faith. But meeting criminals like serial killer John Wayne Gacey changed Chuck Colson's mind.

"He was just defiant and unrepentant and cold," Colson recalls. "I realized that you could keep him in prison forever and you simply couldn't balance the scales of justice. So I don't believe in the widespread use of it." "I believe it should be used only when there is absolutely no question of guilt," Colson says. "Use the standards of Deuteronomy 17 -- eyewitnesses, the accused had to participate in the execution, that was to be sure there was guilt, and then use it only in those cases where no other punishment will suffice."

But what do the victims and their families have to say about the death penalty?

Debbie Morris was kidnapped, raped and terrorized by two men who just days earlier had murdered another woman. Her teenage boyfriend was shot in the head and left for dead.

"It's easy for people on the outside who have never had a personal experience with this to sit back and talk about what other people deserve," she says.

Debbie recalls the words of her captors. "He said, 'I say we just put her in the trunk of the car and burn her up.' Right then I just knew I was going to die."

But Debbie Morris didn't die. She lived to testify against the 2 killers. In fact, it was her testimony that ensured that one of them received the death penalty and the other life in prison.

Debbie remembers her thirst for vengeance. "I can remember vowing to myself, remember every detail, survive, because these guys are going to pay. I felt relieved after his execution. I did feel safe from him, but I still didn't feel completely safe from the other evil in the world. I didn't feel healed. I didn't feel all better."

But around the time of Robert Willey's execution, Debbie had her own day of reckoning. "After the execution, my relief came more from the fact that I somewhat turned back to God and said, 'God, what ever it is, please help me give up this hate and this anger.'"

But that's not the end of Debbie's story. Her journey to become whole again would take years. And her resolve to forgive Robert Lee Willey was tested.

"It's hard for me to look at someone who looks and talks so much like Robert Lee Wiley."

Sean Penn was a dead ringer for Robert Lee Willey in the movie "Dead Man Walking." Just when Debbie thought she had put the past behind her, it was now haunting her from bookstore windows and theater marquis. Now, Debbie had someone else to forgive, the real life nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book on which the movie was based -- the nun who was Robert Willey's spiritual advisor and friend -- the nun who never consulted Debbie when she wrote her book.

Debbie made a call to ask her why. That was the beginning of an unusual friendship.

"We do have differences of opinion about things. But we share the things that are most important -- a love for Jesus Christ, a will to be obedient to God, and a value for human life. Whether it's the life of the victims of the life of the perpetrator or offender."

And that's why Debbie wrote a book to tell her own story.

People ask her if forgiveness is really worth it. She responds, "the cost of forgiveness is nothing compared to the benefits of forgiveness. I feel like I have found new life through forgiveness. Eventually I came to understand and to believe, not only in my head, but in my heart, that God loved Robert Willey as much as He loved me.

You are probably wondering how Debbie Morris views the death penalty today. "In studying the Bible I haven't been able to see any clear cut evidence that God is in favor of this or not in favor of this."

And she still wonders what would have happened to Robert Lee Willey if he had lived. How would he have changed and evolved as a person? What could the Lord have done in his life?

That's why Debbie wants to meet with the other man convicted in her abduction and rape. But as of this writing, prison officials have denied her request.

"What I want Joseph Vacarro to know is that I forgive him," Debbie says. "I want him to hear that in person from me. I want to extend forgiveness and let him know that God will forgive him too. That's what really matters -- whether he has asked God to forgive him."

"I want him to know that he can be free even behind prison bars."

Are You Looking For Peace With God?

Are you seeking the kind of peace that Debbie Morris found? Are you facing a difficult situation in life? You can You can send us your e-mail prayer request online. Or you can call The 700 Club Prayer Counseling Center 24-hours-a-day and 365-days-a-year at (800) 759-0700. A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.


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