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Executions Prompt Vigils from Dedicated Protesters

October 02, 1997
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - They have held vigils to protest every Missouri execution since they were re-instituted in 1989, and they will undoubtedly protest the next one.

On the frigid evening of Tuesday, Sept. 23, the 25 members of the Comumbia Fellowship of Reconciliation lined up along Walnut street did not put their hands in their pockets to keep warm; instead they held up signs visible to rush-hour traffic:

"Why do we kill people to show that killing is wrong?"

"Practice Nonviolence."

"Let Sam McDonald Live."

The demonstrators were participating in one of five vigils held throughout Missouri to protest the execution of convicted murderer Sam McDonald.

The group is the local chapter of a nationwide nonviolent political organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation

Many of the participants knew each other by first name. Some have even attended the vigils since 1989 when the state put George "Tiny" Mercer to death.

Bob Heinz, who has attended several of the vigils since 1989 with his wife, said he was pleased with that particular night's turnout.

"For a cold rainy night I think it's pretty darn good," Heinz said. "When it's zero degrees out and there's people standing here, that's the real test."

Later in the evening, a few of the demonstrators drove two-and-a-half hours to the Potosi Correctional Center, and a few others drove a half-hour to Gov. Mel Carnahan's mansion in Jefferson City, where stayed until 12:01 a.m., the time of McDonald's scheduled lethal injection.

Heinz said usually more people attended the 5 p.m. Columbia vigil than the one at the governor's mansion later at night.

"This is right after work, so it's easier for a lot of people," he said.

Andy Tribble is a member of the fellowship and has attended several of the vigils. Tribble, an emergency room nurse, said the group's objective is the abolition of the death penalty in Missouri.

"That's our goal, that's what we want, and that's what we plan to accomplish," said Tribble. "We don't believe it's going to work out and it's going to happen tomorrow, but at the same time we really believe that life is sacred, and that every life is sacred. Even if they've done awful things, that person is still a child of God, and we need to realize that."

As the demonstrators withstood the persistent drizzle and chilly temperature, they enjoyed the occasional honk or wave from passers-by. One man even clapped out his window as he drove by.

"The more people that drive by and honk their horns and give thumbs up, the more encouraging it is," said Tribble.

Kelly McCoy, attending her second vigil, said she saw many cars driving by with children riding in them. McCoy, the vice-president of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, a grassroots political group, said she wondered what those mothers and fathers were saying to their children.

"Whatever those parents say, those children will remember for a long time."

At 6 p.m., as the rush-hour traffic loosened up, the demonstrators put down their signs and formed a circle in front of the courthouse. Jeff Stack, one of the Columbia chapter's organizers, urged those who could not make the Potosi trip to attend the 10:30 vigil at the governor's mansion.

"You might be the last drop of water that fills the bucket," he said.

The group shared a moment of silence on behalf of McDonald, then parted ways.

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Jefferson City at 10:30 p.m. was not exactly a bustling town.

The air was a little colder, and the rain a little heavier, but by 11:30 there were 10 demonstrators in front of the mansion. Most of them had been at the Columbia vigil, including McCoy.

"The governor turns his head, but he knows we're out here," she said.

In fact, the governor was not present, but in Washington, D.C. to attend a conference.

Though McCoy maintains hope for a man convicted to death, McCoy said she also draws something from the experience that benefits her personally.

"The more I educate myself and take a stand for what I believe in, the more I do things for other people, and other issues besides myself, the more I like myself and who I am."

The routine for the vigils is to have a moment of silence at 11:55 p.m. Before the silence, one of the demonstrators lit a small candle and set it on the short wall bordering the governor's residence.

The silence began until five minutes later church bells a few blocks away announced it was 12 a.m. Meanwhile, the small candle had been snuffed out by the cold rain and wind.

Demonstrators raised their heads and began to say their thank you's and goodbye's. About 150 miles away, Sam McDonald would spoke his last words to prison officials.

"Tell my brothers to be strong."