Lewis says she feels society blames
her for her son's deed. She had to endure the unthinking
glee with which her co-workers greeted the execution
of Timothy McVeigh; some, as if it was a football
game. Most nights she doesn't sleep. For a while she
took to working the night-shift as a way of doing
something useful with her anxiety. But what do you
do with an endless parade of colleagues, neighbors,
church parishioners, who loudly proclaim their support
of capital punishment? "When you say that, you're
saying you want my son dead," Barbara Lewis always
And the answer comes back: "Barbara,
we weren't talking about you!"
But it is about her. If all fails, it will be Barbara
Lewis who will have to comfort her son in the days
before the execution. She'll have to be present at
that terrible death moment so that he doesn t die
without someone nearby who loves him. Most certainly,
it will be Barbara who will have to bring her Robert's
body home from the execution chamber, and it is she,
when it is all over, who will have to bury the child
she once gave life to.
Meanwhile, what Ms. Lewis sees when she visits her
son is devastating. "He is housed in a 24-hour
lock up-- 45 minutes of recreation three days a week,"
she explains in a whisper. "He needs interaction
with other human beings. It's taking its toll on him.
He's become morose. You treat people like animals
and you get what you pay for."
Now, Robert Gattis's crime was horrible
in a fit of rage, he shot his estranged girlfriend,
Shirley Slay. Ms. Lewis partly blames herself. She'd
lived in an abusive marriage for many years. She wonders
now if her son didn't see too much as a child.
The facts in Gattis's case read like
those in a hundred other capital cases that end in
a death sentence: a crime, court appointed defense
lawyers working at $60 an hour, some turns of bad
Gattis's special legal misfortunes
began, Ms. Lewis believes, when a local prosecutor
was criticized for being lax about black-on-black
crime. It's her view the Gattis case was used to disprove
the accusation. Thus what might have been manslaughter
in another locality or time was instead murder. The
second piece of misfortune was that Gattis was tried
around the time a new state law was enacted transferring
death penalty decisions from the hands of 12 unanimous
jurors to a single judge. Gattis's judge exercised
his newly-won powers by ordering an execution.
During the trial, Ms. Lewis tried
to reach out to the victim's family, but her efforts
at reconciliation were thwarted by the prosecutors
who had a stake in the enmity between the two families.
There's not a day that I don't think about that family,
The current status of Gattis's case,
and life, is that all of his appeals have been exhausted.
His last legal hope lies in Delaware's courts reviewing
whether recent decisions on the constitutionality
of judge sentencing apply retroactively (since his
crime was committed under the old law and tried under
the new, now unconstitutional, one). If it does not
go his way, he will be given a new, final, date to
Somehow-- I can't imagine how-- Barbara
Lewis just keeps going. She goes through periods of
nervousness, depression. Several of her daughters
' children live with her, and she worries, perhaps
more than the average grandmother, about the violence
they see on television.
Remarkably, whenever she can, Barbara
Lewis tries to stop the death penalty for everyone.
With her best friend ( my chosen sister ), Anne Coleman,
whose daughter was murdered, they are a two-woman
lobby against Delaware's state-sponsored killing.
Together they've founded Because Love Allows Compassion,
which offers support to both crime victims families
and to the families of death row inmates. "I
also hope that our communities can learn to accept
that killing is a tragedy on all sides, "she
once told a reporter. "There is never just one
set of victims."
Nonconformists, caretakers, victims
alike: The circle of violence never ends. What Barbara
Lewis, Sunny Jacobs, and Brittany Holberg know, and
what the majority who still support the death penalty
have yet to learn, is that capital punishment kills
the humanity in us all.
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