The Mercy Seat

Below is an excerpt from Sally Milbury-Steen’s speech “In Praise of Pacem” from the annual Pacem in Terris dinner. In her speech, Sally discussed many meaningful experiences that guided her on the path of peace and justice. She concluded with a story of mercy, compassion, and the death penalty. That story is below. For her full speech please read the Nov. – Jan. issue of Delmarva Peacework, the Pacem In Terris newsletter. 

It all Started with a Letter

It all started with a letter – an invitation from the Respect for Life Committee of St. Dismas Parish, within the Delaware Correctional Center, now called the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, at Smyrna.  They wanted me to come and talk about the death penalty as part of their Respect for Life Series in October 1996.  As soon as I opened the letter, I was led to say, “yes,” — even though I had no idea what to expect.

When I arrived at the prison, the Catholic Chaplain guided me through the security and registration procedures. From there, invisible eyes observed us and invisible hands pressed buttons and released locks on steel doors and gates.  Each time they would shut behind us with a jarring, cold clang. The last door led us outside to a central courtyard where the chapel stood like an island sanctuary.  When we walked inside, its wooden pews welcomed us, offering a beautiful relief from the harshness of metal and razor wire.

When the prisoners started arriving, many of them flocked towards a stocky man with a wide smile who reached out to them with hugs and handshakes.  He radiated warmth and hope, composure and love.  This was my first impression of Abdullah T. Hameen, the only Muslim member of the Respect for Life Committee.  [This took place before the State of Delaware created its death row in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), so inmates facing execution were still kept in the general prison population.]

The Mercy Seat

By the spring of 2001, Hameen had exhausted all of his appeals at the federal level and an execution date of May 25 had been set.  In early April, Hameen’s wife, Shakeerah, whom I had gotten to know, called me to let me know that he would like me to speak at his hearing before the Pardons Board.  I told her to tell him that I would be honored to speak.  A week or two later, Hameen sent me a letter asking me “…to articulate the need for mercy, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation…”

Part of what I said at that hearing on Friday, May 18, 2001 was:

“There are some who misunderstand the nature of mercy, deriding and maligning it as “weak’ or ‘soft.’  But I tell you that mercy is strong and bold.  It is the most Godlike of human virtues.”

“There are some who misunderstand the nature of mercy, deriding and maligning it as “weak’ or ‘soft.’  But I tell you that mercy is strong and bold.  It is the most Godlike of human virtues. To dispense it is a unique act of courage.  For you this morning, mercy is not a vague abstraction; it is the power over life or death.  It is something that you alone have the authority to grant.  You have the power to give mercy practical expression, you have the power to recommend clemency.”

“Granting mercy does not remove Mr. Hameen from accountability for his crime.  It is not a magic eraser that undoes what was done or minimizes the great suffering of victims and their families.  But mercy does recognize that Mr. Hameen today is vastly different from who he was at the time of the crime.”

“I believe that choosing to exercise your right to grant mercy will affect far more than the life of Mr. Hameen.  It will help restore balance in our state and in our society.  It will help break the cycle of violence and retribution rampant in our society and in our institutions by modeling a different way – the way of compassion and nonviolence – a way that values life and sees in its preciousness the power and potential for transformation, change, and growth – a way that sees the greatest power of the state not as the taking of life but as the showing of mercy.”

Hameen had killed Troy Hodges, but no one from the Hodges Family was present at the  hearing, which weakened the impact of the arguments made by the lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office. After four and a half hours of testimony, the members of the Pardons Board went out to deliberate.  Around 4 pm they returned to say that they were too tired to go on, but that they would continue deliberating over the weekend.

A new session of the Board of Pardons was convened on Monday morning.  After hearing the testimony of members of the Hodges Family and the Director of Rehabilitation at the prison who stated unequivocally that in his thirty years of service in the prison, he had never seen any inmate become rehabilitated, members of the Pardons Board left the room to deliberate.  Within less than two hours they returned, grim-faced, and announced that they had decided to uphold the death sentence.  The execution would go forward in 36 hours as planned on Friday, May 25, 2001.

Clemency Granted

In January of 2012, for the first time in the history of Delaware, Governor Jack Markell commuted the death sentence of Robert Gattis to life imprisonment. This experience has taught me that our acts for justice and peace may not always have the immediate effect that we hope for at the time, but that does not mean that they may not influence change later on.


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