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Waiting for Gacy.

The crowd began to drift away soon after the 12:01 a.m. deadline for the execution of John Wayne Gacy passed. An impromptu New Year's style countdown had begun in the seconds before Gacy's scheduled demise, but when the crowd reached zero, it was a surprisingly subdued cheer that rose slowly into the dark night.

Most of the folks present that night wouldn't find out until the next morning's news that Gacy didn't actually succumb to the deadly chemical cocktail administered by the state's $25,000 intravenous execution machine until 12:58. It seems all that research and development couldn't prevent a small malfunction that prolonged Gacy's life--or his death, I suppose--for another few dreadful minutes.

The scene outside Illinois' Stateville Prison on the last night of the nation's most notorious serial killer's life looked most like the boozy carnival most people associate with lawn seating at a rock concert. As the evening's festivities began a few hours earlier, the highway around the prison was lined for miles with guys jumping from pickups and girls in Daddy's car--later, it would be lined with the crushed beer cans and spent cigarettes discarded by the evening's exhausted participants.

At the long wait by the entrance to the prison, the sour aroma of too-quickly consumed beer and the sweeter smell of marijuana rises into the air as each new carload arrives. Some older folks are on hand tonight as well; some have even brought their children. The biggest concern noted by many arriving and confronted by the long lines is finding a decent place to relieve themselves. Fortunately, the state once again is on the ball, and a number of portable toilets have been set up across the prison's wide front lawn. The metallic slap of the toilets' doors regularly punctuates the evening.

I arrive with a small group of anti-death penalty protesters about half an hour before Gacy was scheduled to be killed.

The large crowd we encounter is white, vocal, and young. Most of the 500 or so on hand are at least as young as Gacy's victims had been. Many of them couldn't have been more than children when Park Ridge, Illinois police made their gruesome discovery in Gacy's crawl space 15 years ago. But they are here tonight, milling about, joking with friends, and joining in good-natured rounds of "Less filling!" and "Tastes good!" with other sections in the audience around Stateville Prison.

In the years since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States, the nation has developed a kind of ritual to guide folks from the execution through the media-circus postmortem. We watch the separate parts of this service unfold now with a comforting familiarity: the churning reporters' pit; the grim but sanguine mugs of stalwart public servants; the despairing, befuddled members of the victims' families; finally the ugly, jeering mob--drunk and howling at the end of the ride--fodder for a thousand newspaper editorials that decry their pathetic display but which politely insist on the rightness of the government's course.

While a monster like Gacy can often be the focus of a sort of horrified fascination and the families of the victims the focus of national sympathy, that mob around the prison site is usually scanned and dismissed as quickly as possible.

But watching the crowd around Stateville Prison the night of Gacy's state-sponsored termination, it seems to me that it is a mistake to pass over these people so quickly; we should linger a little longer and hear what they have to say--maybe discover what it is that brings them out in such large numbers to stand by during executions that none of them will ever actually see.

I can understand why family members of Gacy's victims would make the trip to Stateville in the middle of the night to see Gacy killed. It is less clear what brought these 500 or so people out. Admittedly a lot of them, perhaps most of them in fact, are the kind of people who would go anywhere that looked like it promised the fun of spectacle, sociological rubberneckers seeking out the comfort of being part of a mob. A lot are plainly drunk and simply viewed Gacy's end as a good enough excuse to party.

But it isn't all a good old time. A lot of the folks are buoyantly angry, reveling in their fury and in the impending execution. I wondered what it meant to them. I wondered where all that anger was coming from--the ferocity of this mob and the vile invective elements of it spewed on a small group of anti-death-penalty protesters who are conducting a candlelight vigil.

And so I find myself in the midst of this crowd, out in the country near the great city of Chicago, among people I don't know, but whom I recognize. Past the security fence, past a line of prison guards and state troopers, past the blinding lights atop the prison wall, somewhere in the dark silhouette looming below us, John Wayne Gacy is going to his death.

I don't know why I've come here tonight really; my motives are not as pure as the people I'm with--joined in a small, silent circle against the notion of a state killing. I came tonight partly just to be part of this macabre production, partly because I think the death penalty is a pretty rotten idea, but not at all, finally, because I am going to regret the end of John Wayne Gacy. I have already felt myself slipping along one kind of mental path, I've heard it said by friends; I've almost said it myself: "I'm against capital punishment in principle, but for a monster like Gacy...?"

So standing here among the crowd, the deathpenalty supporters milling about to my left, the "anti" group attempting to maintain a quiet dignity on my right, it isn't wholly clear to me which side I am on. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that I'll have a better idea before the night is over.

On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was discriminatory and arbitrary in its administration, therefore unconstitutional. But the Furman decision didn't kill the death penalty. It endured long enough on judicial life support to be revived in another decision, Gregg v. Georgia, in 1976. In that ruling the Supreme Court declared itself satisfied that new state guidelines assured that the death penalty could be administered in a manner in keeping with constitutional protections. Since then, 229 executions have taken place in the United States.

In the next few years, as the long appeals process of many of the nearly 3,000 men and women on death row finally exhausts itself, executions in the

United States will begin to occur with growing frequency.

At least, that is Seth Donnelly's fear. Donnelly works for the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Donnelly can run through the usual reasons why the death penalty should be abolished: that it is too costly, the death-penalty appeals process per case can cost millions, far more than it would take to remand a convicted murderer for life imprisonment; that the possibility always exists that an innocent person may be executed; that it is not a deterrent to crime (states that have executed the most people have seen their murder rates increase since the reinstatement of the death penalty); finally, that the reason for the original supspension of the death penalty--that this highest form of state punishment is administered in an arbitrary and unfair manner--has not and cannot be resolved.

"The death penalty is applied in an incredibly arbitrary way," says Donnelly. "African Americans constitute under 12 percent of the population. On a national level, they make up 40 percent of the people on death row. Here in Illinois they make up more than 60 percent.

"When you see this type of rampant discrimination in other sectors of society, like housing or employment, what you'll find is a lot of lawsuits being initiated because of civil-rights laws. You don't see that here," says Donnelly.

But even if all the usual arguments that Donnelly offers are accepted without question, I find myself wondering if they would be persuasive enough to change the minds of any of the people who were gathered with me at Stateville the night of Gacy's execution--72 percent of the American public favors the continued use of the death penalty. Donnelly does have one final, perhaps overriding, argument: "The death sentence sends an inherently contradictory and damaging meassage to society: that the appropriate response to killing is killing."

About an hour before Gacy is going to be led into a small room and attached to an IV that will begin to drip lethal chemicals into his veins, the crowd outside on the prison lawn is growing larger and impatient. It takes 20 minutes to a half hour for most people to actually make it into the prison compound as they wait their turns to be searched by police.

"I think we should have got here at 6 o'clock, camped out, and got a decent buzz going," one man grumbles to his date after the line stalls yet again.

"This is like that ticker-tape parade after the Bears won the Superbowl," one woman says, feeling somewhat claustrophobic because of the press of people around her. "I got smashed up against that fence. I was so scared." She's not the only one; the fear of sudden violence is palpable--at least among my small group. We've arrived later than most of the other protesters; now we're scanning the throng for allies with growing anxiety.

Sudden bursts of "Yeah! Kill him!" and "F--- Gacy!" rise sporadically as the crowd waits to get in. Despite the rowdiness, there is no pushing or line cutting. People are downright cordial. This is a game where everybody's rooting for the same team.

Here comes the judge

I remember the smiling face of a chaplain at the state prison at Joliet. He told me he was a Greek Orthodox priest. "Where do Catholics stand on the death penalty?" he asked, apropos of nothing as our tour of the prison was winding down.

I shrugged; I wasn't sure. "We're against it," I finally responded. His smile widened and he shook his head.

"We're not," he said. "We believe there are things that some people can do that negate their humanity, that leaves them without a soul." His smile never wavered. "I have met men in here like that," he said.

If I had to come up with a word for a person like Gacy, capable of the crimes he is convicted of committing, soulless seems as good a word as any. But do I mean that word as a handy adjective, or, as my pal the chaplain does, do I see a theological truth lurking behind it? I guess ultimately it's not up to me to say whether or not Gacy has sacrificed his eternal soul in pursuit of his particularly grotesque worldly pleasures. I won't be his judge.

It's hard to stand here tonight and honestly say that I think Gacy deserves to live, though. I can't repudiate the anger and disgust that brings most of these people to Stateville's lawn. Of course Gacy doesn't deserve to live. He deserves to die 33 deaths, one more rotten than the other.

But we don't do things like that in civilized society. We're rightly repulsed by that idea. We don't seek retribution by recreating the circumstances of one murder in the execution of another. We are willing to do something close to it, though. Like children who construct elaborate rationalizations for acts they know in their hearts to be wrong, we agonize over capital cases, obsess over small points of jurisprudence, and concoct bizarre technologies that distance us as much as possible from the reality of the condemned's death. We sanitize the process, disguise it in the white linen of medical professionals and in the beeping monitors and plastic tubing of a medical procedure.

To do otherwise, to give Gacy an "equal" death, would have to be barbaric; it would demean and dehumanize us, not him. It would take us down the path that he walked so horribly often. So we don't do that, no, not that--we won't tie Gacy up, humiliate and torture him to death. But we will kill him. We will strap him to a cot and insert a needle into his arm and introduce sodium pentathol and pancuromiam bromide into his system then wait about 10 minutes until he is dead. It appears that, while we're not willing to follow him all the way down the path, we don't mind taking the first two or three steps. Gacy will never make a great antideath-penalty poster child, but his execution does offer one more example of how U.S. society resolves its problems by annihilating them, eradicating them, denying them, killing them.

An increasing number have discovered the protesters from the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and are joining the small pockets of young people already menacing the circle. At Illinois' last execution in 1990, that of Charles Walker, state troopers made some effort to keep the opposing camps separate. Tonight, however, there is nothing to keep the two groups apart, and as Gacy's execution deadline passes, more of the crowd surrounds the protesters, blowing out candles and raining abuse on them. Their anger toward the passive members of this circle is unfocused but explosive.

There are no troopers in sight as the circle of protesters is pushed closer and closer to a temporary restraining fence. As more death-penalty supporters move in, a few bolder kids decide to start pushing through the circle, throwing their arms up in triumph as the protesters simply let them through. "How would you feel if he killed your daughter?" shouts a 30ish woman in jeans and a leather jacket. "You sick f---," she spews.

One man suddenly pushes into the center of the circle. He's drunk but, unlike most of the other kids tonight, somewhat stylishly dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. He pauses a moment and seems to recover his balance. Then he speaks: "You people are sick," he shouts. "Where were you when the 23 families needed you?" he yells, missing the victim count slightly.

"Save the whales, not some homo-killer," someone shouts, turning to see whether his friends have heard. "I hope he suffered."

The protesters say nothing through it all, silently relighting candles as they're blown out and strangely hesitant to leave, maybe unwilling to surrender the field without a fight--even a passive one. Their tormentors also seem unwilling to depart and stand around the circle, a grinning, smirking, backslapping contrast to the somber group. While some treat the assault as just part of the fun of an execution watch, others are plainly infuriated by the presence of the protesters. And while some sort of violence doesn't appear imminent, it doesn't appear impossible, either.

What's a little revenge?

Finally three state troopers arrive and begin to disperse the crowd. The troopers don't say it, but they don't have to: move along, the party's over. The crowd begins to move away from the protesters, who by now are gathered in a small defensive herd by the fence.

Outside Stateville the abuse slowly diminishes as even the most passionate appear to grow tired of all the shouting. The "anti" crowd leaves as quickly and with as much of a low profile as possible, but not before the priests receive a few more one-liners from boys who probably spent their formative years in Catholic schools. It's here, walking in single file along the highway back to our cars, that I somehow feel most vulnerable. My heart is beating faster; my eyes are fixed on the black pavement. I can feel the eyes of the young people, now celebrating from the open doors of their cars, following me as I walk past. I feel as if they all know I was among "those" people who came to protest, not to laugh and drink and shout.

We make it back to the car chased by only a few vile parting shots. I sigh deeply in relief when we get in the car and lock the door, and I only begin to fully relax when we pull out onto the road, disappearing into the anonymity of the highway. The night is over, but I'm still trying to sort out my feelings.

Faced with the enormity of Gacy's crimes and the pain he has inflicted over the years, it's difficult to resist the allure of the vengeance that the death penalty holds out. It's easier to join the emotional tide of the mob that is drifting away behind me and rejoice in Gacy's death. After all, wouldn't killing Gacy at the very least offer some solace to the suffering of the families of his victims?

And what is so wrong with a little revenge? Even if you agree that the death penalty does little or nothing to deter capital crimes.

That was what this crowd was literally screaming for at the top of its lungs: revenge. But revenge is a tricky thing; its satisfactions are fleeting. And while it may provide some short perosnal consolation, it offers little in terms of a concrete social good. Ultimately, it's too ineffectual even as unacknowledged social policy to justify the process that culminated in the Gacy spectacle.

That's because what the Gacy-fest crowd wants perhaps more than revenge, it finally seems to me, is simply a better sense of well-being, a confidence in the right order of things, of personal safety. It wants protection from people like Gacy. It wants to believe that life in the U.S. can be conducted reasonably and with predictability, that it's not likely to be terminated at the hands of some anonymous sociopath at the end of a dark alley, in the trunk of a sedan, or in the crawl space of a suburban home.

Unfortunately, killing Gacy does nothing to make society safer; it does nothing to restore predictability. The killings will continue--from the outageously perfunctory murders administered on our city streets by children with guns to the pathological aberrations perpetrated by people like Gacy. And that may be the best reason that the death penalty is bad social policy, why it has always been wrong. It's a distraction, folks. It's a trick. It teaches us nothing, and it leads us away from the real problems that want attention.

The death penalty isn't even a shortcut, a quick fix; it's the illusion of one. But killing Gacy will not bring back the 33 young men he killed; it will not, I suspect, appreciably assuage the pain of their families and the emptiness that has been opened up in their lives, and it will not make life for everybody else any safer.

In the end, I don't think that it is actually Gacy that my pals in the mob outside Stateville want to kill; they want to kill uncertainty; they want to resurrect order out of chaos, restore reliability in this life that is our gift

and which is inherently unreliable. We kill Gacy because we fear life and its untrustworthiness, and we fear the death that is part of it. It takes courage to face up to life and acknowledge that it is uncertain, it is disordered, it is unpredictable, and it is fraught with unexpected sorrows and sudden burdens--even with sudden death at the hands of strangers. But it is that courage, that faith, that is demanded of us--to face up to this uncertainty and embrace it, to call this life and accept it, and to see the life that is in death and accept that, too.

The death penalty--and its close cousins mandatory-sentence minimums and "three strikes you're out" legislation--cannot alter the capriciousness we find so intolerable in life, no matter how many people we execute over the coming years. But let's see what it does accomplish. Let's return to that howling mob one more time and focus our video cameras on them a while longer and let everybody scan its swirling face and perhaps recognize a few friends or relatives or even themselves. Ultimately the only argument offered by the anti-death-penalty crowd that makes absolute sense to me is revealed among the sign waving and the screaming of the crowd. The death penalty dehumanizes us, not the killers; it brutalizes us as a society. State killing is only a difference in quality, not in kind--even to the crimes of a Gacy. We diminish ourselves each time we join the killers.

And if anyone doubts that, let them take a walk among the crowd some sweaty execution night. Let them walk among the medieval spectacle and smell the sour alcohol on a stranger's breath. And let them listen to the laughter and sarcasm; let them hear the intolerance rain down on people who disagree, on people who are different; let them hear how a particular crime and this gruesome process is twisted around in a perplexing discourse that begins to justify a profusion of bitter ideologies.

Inside the prison, at the press conference convened immediately following Gacy's execution, the inevitable questions about the validity of the death penalty are raised, then gruffly repudiated by the stalwart public servants on hand. These are career prosecutors and police officers who would probably express some indignation at being compared to the boorish display outside the prison walls. But what separates them from the howling mob out front? Though they might be unwilling to be associated with the beer swillers and the screamers on Stateville's front lawn, their smug responses would fit well onto one of the signs that supporters of the death penalty are waving outside.

These slightly less demonstrative supporters of the Illinois death penalty describe what they've seen. Apparently even the botched execution of Gacy is not enough to discourage them: "I didn't see anything that would cause me to lose any sleep," one member of the prosecution team tells the assmbled reporters. May be he should witness the next execution from the lawn seats.
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Title Annotation:Catholic view of John Wayne Gacy's execution
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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