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Bearing witness to an execution

Sister Barbara Battista, above, brings her passion for justice with her as she speaks to anti-death penalty protesters gathered near the federal prison in Terre Haute during an execution in August. In two following executions she would accompany the condemned men at their death.

“After the executioner pronounced the time of death, I anointed their bodies and prayed them home to God,” Sister Barbara Battista said.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Sister Barbara has ministered in a variety of ways. Her health care background has proved beneficial for the Congregation in establishing protocols focused on risk reduction and maintaining overall health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her ministry of justice promotion continues. Then in August, she was asked to be a minister of record for a federal death row inmate.

Helping another human

Keith Dwayne Nelson had known of the Sisters of Providence for several years. He asked Dustin Lee Honken, another death row inmate about to be executed to ask “his Sister,” Sister Betty Donoghue, to ask Sister Barbara if she would be willing to accompany him into the death chamber.

Keith asked Sister Barbara to be his spiritual advisor. Her immediate reaction to his request was, “Yes, of course I will do that.”

“Here was another human being asking for help,” Sister Barbara said. “I couldn’t imagine denying this person. I knew I wanted to do it. We must be present when we can.” So, after prayerful discernment, Sister Barbara agreed.

Nelson had been sentenced to death in 2002. Prior to 2020, the federal government had not executed an inmate since 2003.

Sister Barbara agreed to minister to both Keith Nelson and later William Emmet LeCroy. Thus began an intense and yet, oh so brief, relationship with both men.

She said she had several phone visits and one in-person visit with each man.

Witness and companion

Sister Barbara Battista visits with Keith Dwayne Nelson on death row in Terre Haute in the weeks before his execution.

“I met them towards the end of their lives,” she said. “They were normal people. They didn’t strike me as angry. They each talked about the community that forms among the guys on ‘the row,’ that is death row. Will LeCroy described how each person finds their own way to cope with confinement. For him, it was reading and spiritual exploration.

“I was there to bear witness, to be a companion. I honored their process, their agenda. I took my lead from them. I was very grateful to be able to do this, to bear witness in some small way.”

Sister Barbara said both men realized their chances of clemency or being granted a stay of execution were slim. Attorneys for both inmates had exhausted all avenues with the federal government and the executions were to proceed.

“They were both pretty well resigned,” she said. “Their voices were always calm. There was always an outward calm. Neither of these men was claiming their innocence.”

Human suffering

On the day of the first execution, Sister Barbara was escorted into the chamber for the execution where she saw Keith strapped to the gurney, completely flat. Sister Barbara was able to speak to him for a few minutes before he had an opportunity to make a final statement. He chose to say nothing.

In a manner of minutes, Keith Nelson had been executed.

“It felt all the more dehumanizing to see him flat on his back,” Sister Barbara said. “You could hardly see him. It was almost surreal, the space we were in. The others in the room … they were almost like robots. That was my observation.”

A history of prison ministry

Sister Barbara is the most recent Sister of Providence in a long line of sisters who have ministered at the Terre Haute Penitentiary. Sisters of Providence have been ministering to prisoners throughout their history. Several sisters still minister with inmates at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, some of whom are on death row.

Will LeCroy became interested in meeting with Sister Barbara after Keith suggested he talk to her. Will was sentenced to death in 2001 and his execution was scheduled for Sept. 22, 2020.

Less than one month after Keith had been executed, Sister Barbara traveled the 18-minute drive from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to the penitentiary to see Will one final time.

She entered the same room where she had been with Keith in his final
moments. There, she saw Will LeCroy, strapped to a gurney. Only this time, the gurney was tilted upward giving him an opportunity to see his surroundings.

Sister Barbara approached the tape marking how close she could get to him. Since the table he was strapped to was tilted a bit, they were able to make good eye contact in the midst of their brief visit.

Human suffering

“You’re talking to this person, this victim of a revenge killing. They are totally defenseless. There’s nothing he or I could do about it,” Sister Barbara said.

“This is all just more human suffering,” she added. “For me, it reinforces the deep human need for compassion. We need to stand up and advocate for others. It’s critically important for me and for so many others to speak out against this injustice.

Just prior to the beginning of their joint prayer, Sister Barbara had the chance to say a few final words to Will.

She told him that the advocates outside — across from the penitentiary, rallying against the death penalty — were eating Milk Duds in his honor. A longtime friend of Will’s had let Sister Barbara know that Milk Duds were his favorite candy. At that, they both shared a laugh. Later on, Sister Barbara learned that members of the media, who were in another room within the chamber, could hear Will laughing.

A prayer for mercy

Will LeCroy had asked Sister Barbara to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet with him and she did. At his request she continued, out loud, to pray the prayers as she stepped back away from the execution table to take her place in the corner of the room.

“For the sake of His sorrowful passion have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world …”

Then, the execution began.

(Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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