Some Memories Never Fade: On the execution of Juan Garza in 2001
Note: Three executions were scheduled between July 13-17, 2020, and one in August at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. This penitentiary is 10 miles from the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence. The Sisters of Providence oppose the death penalty.
Eight days after the June 11, 2001, execution of Timothy McVeigh, on June 19, two days after Father’s Day, Juan Garza from Brownsville, Texas, met the same fate at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute.
Along with Sister Suzanne Brezette (RIP), I was asked to host the Garza family in Marian Hall at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for the week prior to the execution of their husband, father, and brother. His execution and his family’s presence with us for that week is the memory that will remain with me forever.
In my memory forever is participating with Juan Garza’s daughter, Norma, to protest the execution of Timothy McVeigh at the Terre Haute Court House, and later standing next to her at the prayer vigil keeping watch at the penitentiary early in the morning of June 11. It was as if it were an eerie dress rehearsal for her father’s execution a week later.
In my memory forever, somewhat frozen in time, are the faces and presence of his children and grandchildren: Maribel (27), Norma (24), Juan Jr. (12) and Liz-Ann (9) and grandchildren Bernadette (8), Alphonso (4) and Sebastian (3 months). Juan Jr. commented, “No one should have to die that way.” Even the 4-year-old asks many questions.
In my memory forever are the stories of the family’s last visit. Liz-Ann, hugging her father so long and so hard that she did not want to let him go. “My dad is not being murdered; he is being released to a better place, to the Promised Land.” Juan’s last words to his wife and family: “I am not afraid to walk up the table. My fear is for you and for my children. Be strong and draw closer as a family; love one another.”
In my memory forever is the family gathered around the television in Marian Hall watching the preparations for Juan’s death. Juan told them he did not want them to witness his death by lethal injection nor to join Sisters of Providence and others at a prayer vigil on the prison grounds. Close to seven o’clock, his daughter Norma went outside. I followed her and joined her on the grass, facing the direction of the prison. She told me she wanted to see her father’s soul finally set free. As our Church bells tolled a little after seven, I told her that he was now free and with God, enjoying God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.
My questions about the death penalty remain unresolved. Why do we (The United States Government and society) kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong? Why do we perpetuate violence in the name of justice? Please join the Sisters of Providence in praying and living our prayer of non-violence.