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Things some people do if they're not executed.

In the roomy visitors hall of the Augusta Correctional Center - a maximum-security prison three hours southwest of Washington - the assistant warden came to the microphone to offer a few positive thoughts. Twelve inmates, two prison chaplains, some social workers and a few reporters from local papers were the audience, gathered on folding chairs.

A first was happening: the graduation ceremony for a group of prisoners who had successfully completed an academic course on nonviolence. Instead of diplomas, certificates of peacemaking were awarded. The men had read and discussed about 40 essays by Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Gene Sharp and other theorists on nonviolent conflict resolution. They wrote papers that were sent to a teacher in Chicago who gave her comments and evaluations.

Robert Taylor, the assistant warden and former military officer who had been a marriage counselor before getting into prison administration, congratulated the men for their achievement. He said this kind of education was worthwhile and hoped it would continue for others.

No one in the audience was as pleased as the organizer of the course and its discussion leader, Joseph Giarratano. You may recall the name. Joe Giarratano is supposed to be dead. In the months before his scheduled execution in February 1991, in Virginia's electric chair, enough people were convinced of his innocence that 7,000 letters had been sent to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder asking for clemency. Amnesty International, the European Parliament and more than a dozen members of Congress examined the weak and conflicting evidence for his murder conviction in 1979 and argued that an innocent man could be executed.

With less than 100 hours left, Wilder, saying the decision was "complex but not difficult," agreed. He commuted the death sentence.

For most of the last two years, Giarratano has been caged at the Augusta prison, sentenced to life with a chance at parole in 2004. Wilder's commutation turned out to be semijustice, a half-measure that canceled the death penalty without allowing either a new trial or freedom.

Wilder never answered a question: If the claims of innocence were strong enough to raise doubts about an execution, why were they too weak to justify a retrial?

The governor, overly circumspect, took the advice of the attorney general, Mary Sue Terry, who said the decision for a new trial rested with her. Receiving petitions before and after the governor's clemency, Terry has refused to reexamine the case because she is convinced Giarratano had his day in court.

Actually, it was half a day - a trial of less than four hours and in which no evidence corroborated the defendant's confabulated confessions. Virginia is one of the few states that forbids new evidence to be offered 21 days after the trial. Giarratano's post-conviction lawyers meticulously presented the kind of facts that persuaded the governor to intercede. For Wilder, granting clemency was an ethical issue. For Terry, refusing a retrial was procedural. In the clash, procedure won out.

Giarratano, an eigth-grade dropout whose self-education in prison enabled him to write articles for law reviews, including Yale's, is keeping his petition for retrial before both the governor and attorney general. As long as it's ignored, Virginia's judicial system remains one of the nation's most backward.

At the graduation ceremony the other day, Giarratano put his case aside. In remarks to the gathering, he spoke as a caring teacher, probably the first many of the student-prisoners ever had. They said as much when their turn came to speak. By reputation, these were among the toughest men in the prison. For them to study peacemaking - an unofficial program so it isn't usable on parole appeals - sends a message throughout the cell blocks: The true toughness is in using nonviolence, not violence.

Among the guests was Marie Deans of the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, a selfless woman who has befriended hundreds of the state's inmates. "This is the most positive event I've seen in all my years of working in the Virginia prison system," she said. These were big tough guys who took this course. It's a credit to Joe and all of them that they organized and ran their own program."

This is the kind of rehabilitation seen only occasionally in prisons. Now it's on view in Virginia. Its governor and attorney general should take a look.
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Title Annotation:capital punishment
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 12, 1993
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