Fathers speak out against death penalty
Note: This story was originally published in 2001 prior to the federal execution of Timothy McVeigh at the U. S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
How can anyone understand the tremendous pain parents must feel when a child is taken from them by the hands of a murderer?
The grief, the last words that were shared, the anger, the memories, the inevitable question of “why” wrestle with delicate, frayed emotions. Months, maybe years, pass before some achieve a measure of peace. Some never do.
Paul Stevens and Emmett “Bud” Welch found themselves at the brink in their efforts to cope with the acts of violence that took their daughters’ lives.
Paul’s daughter Cindy was babysitting for an Evansville woman in 1969. The woman’s estranged husband went to the residence and murdered Cindy. It was to have been Cindy’s last night of babysitting for the client because of the fear of the estranged husband.
Bud’s daughter Julie was working in the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 when a bomb ripped away most of the building, her life and the lives of 167 others.
Paul and Bud began a four-day visit to Terre Haute in March by sharing their stories in separate presentations to the Sisters of Providence and to students and staff at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Sisters, staff members and a few guests sat in nearly motionless quiet in Providence Dining Room as Paul and Bud talked about the rage that had infiltrated their spirits after their daughters’ deaths. Some lighter moments during the storytelling generated respectful laughter, but the powerful messages also promp-ted a few moist eyes.
The phone call no parent ever wants to receive came to the Stevens’ home at 3 a.m. that fateful day. Paul went to the client’s home and found Cindy in a pool of blood on a bed. He returned to the living room and found the attacker lying on the floor with knives in a chair next to him.
“I was very full of hate,” Paul said.
Eventually he moved his family from Evansville to Kentucky to help escape the continued suffering. After a personal retreat, he was able to embrace peace, depending on a very simple prayer, “Jesus, I love you.”
Bud talked about returning to the crumbled structure of the federal building daily for months “because that was the last place Julie was alive,” he said. He talked about how he doubled his cigarette habit to three packs a day and increased his dependency on alcohol so he could sleep at night. The hangovers grew worse until they lasted most of the next day, until it was time to drink again.
Bud wanted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols “fried. I would have killed them myself if I would have had the chance,” he said. Timothy and Terry are accused of masterminding the effort to blow up the federal building. Timothy is on Death Row in the U.S. Penitentiary south of Terre Haute awaiting a May 16 execution date. Terry is awaiting state trial in Oklahoma where the death sentence looms with conviction.
Bud’s relief came in more dramatic fashion. He was in Buffalo, N.Y., for a speaking engagement, and a woman religious in the area arranged a visit with Timothy McVeigh’s father.
Bud remembers the atmosphere being tense until he mentioned Bill McVeigh’s garden. Bill took him to the garden where they “kicked dirt clods” for a half hour or so, then went inside to talk, joining Bill’s daughter.
“That Saturday morning in western New York, I found a bigger victim than myself in all of this,” Bud said. After the visit, Bud went to Hope House, a halfway house for convicts, where he sat on a sofa and cried for a long period of time. “I felt like a tremendous burden had been lifted from my shoulders,” he said. “I never felt closer to God than I did at that time.” Paul has rekindled his spirit by working with Death Row inmates at Eddyville prison in Kentucky.
“I found out that I needed them to help me, and they needed me to help them,” Stevens said. “People can change.” He has befriended many of them and even has accompanied one of them to the death chamber. That prisoner carried Paul’s daughter’s rosary to the electric chair. Cindy Stevens’ rosary has been passed among Death Row inmates at Eddyville for more than five years.
Bud has taken a more public role as an advocate against the death penalty. He has been on a national speaking circuit and has testified before Congress.
“I was so full of rage and vengeance when Julie died,” Bud said. “It took me a long time to realize those were the same reasons she was dead – rage and vengeance. But when they take Tim McVeigh from his cage on May 16 and kill him, it is not going to help Julie. It is not going to help me. It is not going to help you.”
Paul and Bud spoke to numerous audiences in the Terre Haute area during their four-day visit. Several community organizations collaborated for the program’s sponsorship, including the Sisters of Providence and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.