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Witness against the Horror: Standing Vigil at an Execution

In March, I attended my first anti-death penalty vigil on the grounds of an execution site.

After driving the hour from Atlanta to Jackson, Georgia — well, an hour and a half with Atlanta-area traffic — my husband and I stopped at a barbecue shack for an early dinner. A man waiting in line eyed my t-shirt, which had “PRO-LIFE” printed across the chest, and asked if we were in town to support or oppose the execution scheduled for that evening. I told him we were there to oppose it. He said he wasn’t sure how he felt about the death penalty, but it seemed to him that dragging the process out for so long — Willie Pye was sentenced to death in 1996 — was an injustice to everyone involved.

We quickly ate our dinner, and then we made our way up the road to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Across the street from the prison, we encountered the first anti-death penalty activists: a lawyer from New York who was using a megaphone to speak with the prison guards across the way, a man named Tommy who told me he had befriended Willie while incarcerated and was convinced he was innocent, and a fellow whole-life advocate, Hayden Laye of Democrats for Life of America. We stopped to chat for a while, then decided to head on in. 

The vigil was held just inside the prison gates, in a roped-off plot of grass with a picnic table and a perimeter of pine trees. Upon arriving at the grounds, we were instructed by the guards to leave any phones, smart watches, or cameras in our cars. 

This was apparently a new policy, as I learned when I spoke with the organizer of the vigil, Mary Catherine Johnson. Mary Catherine also runs a host home in Jackson for family members of death row inmates who come into town for prison visits — or execution dates. She said that in the past, vigil attendees’ use of technology was no issue, and she was able to easily communicate with family members and lawyers to get updates about appeals or last-minute complications; this time, however, we were left to get our updates from the few journalists who had come to cover the event.

Despite lacking the ability to communicate with the outside world, the vigil continued as planned. We gathered in a circle, and Mary Catherine started us off by sharing facts about Willie Pye’s life and the life of the woman he killed, Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. A prayer was said for the Yarbrough family, for all murder victims, and for those executed by the state. We then went around the circle reading aloud a list of names: the 76 people who had been executed in Georgia since 1973. 

As we went down the list, the execution dates became more recent. One member of the circle burst into tears when it got to be her turn; the name she was set to read, an inmate executed in 2019, was someone she had befriended as a longtime penpal. Another woman broke down shortly afterwards. Her husband is currently on Georgia’s death row, and the name she was set to read was one of his former best friends. 

Once we finished with the scheduled programming, we were left to wait. Hours ticked by as we made small talk, prayed, discussed potential activism strategies, and waited for updates. Though the execution had been scheduled for six o’clock, last-minute legal appeals meant that the actual execution process might not begin until ten, eleven, or even midnight. Even then, the process could face complications if the executioners struggled to find a vein for lethal injection (as they did in Alabama with Joe Nathan James and Kenny Smith). 

Mary Catherine mentioned that she had attended execution vigils that dragged out until one in the morning. Every time, she said, they would wait to leave until they saw the family members — of the victim and the executed — and the hearse. 

This time, we got confirmation via one of the journalists that the execution had been completed just after eleven o’clock. Those remaining at the vigil gathered together to pray and share final thoughts. I shared one of my favorite prayers that felt right, in the moment: the closing prayer of the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless, and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. Amen. 

Shortly afterward, we saw the Yarbrough family quietly return to their cars. Willie’s brothers also returned to the parking area. Before getting in their cars, they stopped by the vigil area to share a few words and a hug with Tommy. 

Much of the group continued to wait a while longer to see the hearse, with the exception of the woman whose husband is on death row; she said seeing the hearse would make his potential execution seem too real. However, after several minutes it was apparent that, for whatever reason, it wasn’t coming. We said our goodbyes, and then we parted ways.

It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt throughout the vigil and after the execution. I’ve attended countless anti-death penalty vigils and rallies in the past, but being on the grounds of the execution site made this a unique experience. 

The permanence of death weighed heavily on the entire group, as we knew that a man was going to lose his life yards away from where we stood and we were powerless to stop it. We could only hope that our witness to the dignity of every human life might show resistance, however small, against the horror.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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