Death Row Practice: Walking The Last Mile

by Kobutsu Malone


"Mind is the forerunner of all actions. All deeds are led by mind, created by mind. If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows, as the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart."

- The Dharmapada.


Jusan and Kobutsu. Photo By Tom Mc Kitterick. On August 8th, 1996 – I witnessed the killing of my friend and brother monk, Rev. Jusan Fudo Sifu Frankie Parker. This is the reason the publication of this issue of Gateway Journal has been delayed for so long.

Sifu Frankie Parker came into our lives on the morning of March 24th, 1996 in the form of a letter reprinted in the Letters section of this issue. When I read his letter for the first time I found myself, at first incredulous, and finally numb with shock. Frankie had written to us two months before he was scheduled to be executed; this was an entirely new circumstance in our experience. This man shot and killed his in-laws, James and Sandra Warren, on November 5th 1984. He was about to be executed for these crimes, but somehow the content of his letter struck me in a profound way. We receive hundreds of letters each year from prisoners all over the country; we try to respond in a timely manner as best we can and send out a few books or provide a little advice to those who write. Not only was Frankie about to be executed, but he did not once ask for anything in his letter.

I put our stack of prisoner correspondence to the side for the time being. I wrote to Frankie, Sifu, as he was known, offering our friendship and support. I didn't know how he would take it; we didn't wish to intervene in his business, but we did want to let him know that we cared about him and were willing to support him if he wished. Several days later I received a call from Frankie. He was not in the least offended and, in fact, was pleased that we had offered our support. We talked for quite a while. Toward the end of our conversation he said that he had planned to be killed without a spiritual advisor present but, since we had offered our support, would I accompany him when he was executed? He said that he would be honored by my presence. With no hesitation, I immediately consented. Our lives changed at that point. There were many considerations, more than I can possibly write about here. I have been asked to write a book about our experiences with Sifu, and in that forum I will be able to communicate the full impact of volunteering to be a spiritual advisor for a person to be executed by the state.

During the following month E-Kun and I became intensely involved in organizing people to petition the Governor of Arkansas to grant clemency for Frankie and commute his death sentence to life in prison without parole. We spent a huge amount of time on the telephone contacting people all over the world, wrote many letters and sent out mailings. We appealed to people to donate funds to help us cover the costs of the campaign and to help pay for our transportation to Arkansas. The toll of this activity was considerable, not only in terms of financial drain but also psychological strain and stress. We were constantly aware of the pressure of the situation, the fact that a human life was at stake. Every night before retiring I would find myself questioning if I had done everything I possibly could on Frankie's behalf that day.

We purchased airline tickets to Arkansas, and on Friday, May 24th, we flew to Little Rock, prepared to spend the next few days visiting Frankie. I was to spend the last day, May 28th, alone with Frankie in preparation for his execution scheduled for 9:00 PM on May 29th. When we arrived in Little Rock we discovered that the Governor had granted a reprieve to move the execution to July 11th. E-Kun and I drove from Little Rock on the following morning to Tucker Arkansas, the location of Death Row. We drove through 30 miles of totally flat Mississippi Delta lands, past vast paddies of rice growing for miles in each direction. We arrived at the facility at 11:00 AM and were admitted through security. We were treated with respect and courtesy by the Arkansas Department of Corrections staff. We were greeted by Chaplain, Rev. James Reynolds, a robust black gentleman with great wisdom, a wonderful sense of humor, and a heart of Gold!

I spotted Frankie through the windows of the visiting room. It was an interesting moment. For the first time, I had the face of a human being to connect with the name. After a delightful get-acquainted meeting, I performed a Jukai ceremony for him, giving him the name Jusan (mountain of eternal life), which was selected for him by my abbot, Ven. Eido Shimano, Roshi. Eido Roshi did the calligraphy of his new name on the back of a Rakusu (ritual bib) which was lovingly handmade by our dear sister Myojo as a Jukai present for Jusan.

Governor Tucker was convicted by a jury of two federal felonies on May 28th. Shortly after his convictions, Governor Tucker announced his intention to step down from office on July 15th. The office of Governor was then to be filled by the Lieutenant Governor, Rev. Mike Huckabee. Now the focus of our letter writing campaign shifted. Due to Arkansas statute, a governor was only permitted to grant clemency up to thirty days prior to leaving office. This meant that Governor Tucker could grant clemency only prior to June 15th. We were hopeful that Governor Tucker, now a felon himself, and scheduled to leave office in disgrace, would recognize that he had nothing to lose in granting Jusan clemency. This however, was not to be the case. June 15th passed with no word.

On June 17th, after repeated attempts on my part to reach Governor Tucker or his aide Mr. Jack Gillian, at 12 noon I received a telephone call from Mr. Stark Ligon, the Governor's legal council. Mr. Ligon informed me that after consultation with the Lieutenant Governor's transition staff, a new date of August first had been selected for Jusan's execution. That evening, I received a call from Jusan who was somewhat distraught over the new execution date; evidently the Governor's staff had failed to note that August first was Jusan's birthday! Jusan's mother and father have experienced the suicides of two of their children, Cathy Parker in March of 1980 and Richard Parker in December of 1983, and now they were to experience the State-sanctioned murder of their eldest son on his birthday!

On June 29th we were informed by Governor Tucker's staff that the execution would be set for September 17th. We were told that this date had been selected to avoid carrying out the execution during the hot summer months and at a time when many Department of Corrections employees were on vacation. The September 17th date was confirmed when I received the copy of the Death Warrant signed by Governor Tucker bearing the three inch diameter, ribbon emblazoned, embossed gold Seal of the State of Arkansas. Jusan thought I would get a kick out of receiving this macabre document. He was right; it is a sobering thing indeed. We were informed by the Governor's office that this date had been selected in consultation with the transition staff of Lieutenant Governor Huckabee.

We were consistently amazed by the actions of the Arkansas Governors. Governor Tucker at one point, during a telephone conversation, told Jusan's mother, Janie Parker, that he would meet with me prior to the execution, and a matter of hours later, his assistant, Mr. Jack Gillian, called me to inform me that the Governor had refused to see me. Mr. Gillian said the Governor had never met with a condemned man's spiritual advisor in the past and there was no reason to do so now. Our campaign re-directed its energy to writing to the Lieutenant Governor, Rev. Michael Huckabee. Rev. Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and is adamantly opposed to abortion but is pro death penalty.

Jusan and I were talking just about every day on the telephone and our friendship grew deeper and deeper. We watched the news closely and stayed in contact with Jusan's attorney, Mr. Jeff Rosenzweig. On July 15th, I called Jeff to find out if the new governor had assumed office. He informed me that the capitol was in chaos due to a political crisis precipitated when Governor Tucker had an assistant announce that he was refusing to step down from office! Lieutenant Governor Huckabee, with the support of the legislature, delivered an ultimatum to Governor Tucker threatening him with impeachment if he did not step down from office. Later, on the evening national news, we learned that the Governor had relented and resigned. Governor Tucker had evidently seriously thought that he might be able to hold on to power, which probably affected his thinking in regards to granting clemency for Jusan. In reality, it seems that he was operating in a deluded state for quite a while due to the pressure of his trial and, finally, his conviction. Later, insiders at the Governor's office informed us that he was despondent during those last days and that the government was being run by his office staff.

The greatest blow to our efforts came on July 22nd when we learned that the new Governor, Rev. Huckabee, in a totally unprecedented action, issued a proclamation, his first in office, moving Jusan's execution date to August 8th! In effect, with his signature, he cut six weeks of Jusan's life. We were stunned. It was reported that the Governor had met with the family of Frankie's victims. Jim Harris, a spokesperson from the governor's office said, "This [date change] was out of consideration for the victim's family. They've waited years and we could determine no reason to delay it more."

We had prepared the text for this issue of Gateway Journal and the printer was scheduled to begin the press run on July 23rd. Given the change in the execution date, the prepared text was now out of date so we canceled the printing. We had the printer run the center fold page with the third installment of Zen Karmics, a tribute to Jusan, since we wanted to be able to show it to him before he was killed.

I began calling Governor Huckabee's office on a daily basis to request a meeting between the Governor and myself, Jusan's mother, Janie, and his sister Shari. The Governor's assistant on Criminal Justice, Mr. Dale "Butch" Reeve, finally informed me on July 29th that the Governor had agreed to meet with Janie, Shari and myself. The following day I was informed by Mr. Reeve that the Governor had canceled the meeting with us in retaliation for Jusan taking part in a radio talk show! Mr. Reeve seemed to be personally embarrassed by the actions of his superior. I was disturbed by the Governor's action; it appeared that on a psychological level the Governor was acting like a spoiled child. This was ominous indeed. The following day Jusan's sister Shari was on the same radio program and read a profoundly moving letter to the Governor pleading with him to spare her brother's life.

We continued our campaign of letter writing, faxing and E-mailing until August first. We flew to Arkansas on August third, and, early in the morning on the fourth, E-Kun and I went to Tucker to visit Jusan. E-Kun brought along an old monk's robe of mine to give to Jusan for his ordination as a Zen Buddhist monk. He expressed his desire to become a monk several times to me over the phone but I was not certain if he was serious about it. That morning he asked me directly, "Do you think I am ready to become a monk?" With only four days left to live, and with such deep sincerity in his question, I could not refuse to grant him this request. There, on the floor of the visiting room with E-Kun and two corrections officers as witnesses we conducted the ordination ceremony. Jusan was shackled throughout the ceremony; our request to have the chains removed was denied, as was our attempt to bring in a camera. Jusan was only able to wear his monk's robe once in his life, during his ordination ceremony. We took so long with the ceremony that we ran over the allotted visiting time, but the officers were kind enough to allow us a little extra time to complete the ceremony. As we departed, Jusan's robe was confiscated and placed in the Warden's office for safe-keeping. Jusan received the ordination name of Fudo, the immovable Bodhisattva chained to a rock in hell until all beings are liberated from suffering. His name was now Rev. Jusan Fudo Sifu William Frank Parker. We visited with him on the fifth of August at Tucker. Very early in the morning on the sixth he was moved, under tight security, to the Cummins Unit in Varner, Arkansas, the location of the execution chamber. E-Kun, myself, his friends and family were allowed to visit with him there until the 8th, at which point only myself and his attorney were permitted to see him. I had the honor of spending the entire day with him on the eighth, from 8:40 AM until 8:51 PM. We were under constant observation by the death watch officers who recorded events in the "death watch" log-book.

Jusan spent much of his time writing letters to, and receiving phone calls from friends, relatives and teachers. He was able to speak with Ven. Eido Shimano Roshi, Ven. Philip Kapleau Roshi, and Lama Tarchin Rinpoche in Switzerland. At twenty after five in the afternoon, Jusan's last meal arrived. He had arranged with the warden for me to join him for this meal. He spent time dividing his personal belongings, and wrote a list for me as to who got what. All of his possessions fit into a small cardboard box. We talked, we held hands through the access slot, we both knew that we had done our best to gain clemency; there were no regrets. At 7:22 PM, he wrote a statement and asked me to read it at the press conference after his death. At 8:47 I was told to prepare for the arrival of the "tie-down team." I put on my Robe, Kesa, and Zagu, then Jusan and I began chanting out loud the Three Refuges, "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. . . . "

The "team" arrived at 8:50. The men that poured into the "quiet cell" area were big - dressed in black body armor, black helmets with face shields, and black boots. Two of them arrived brandishing large, full-body riot shields with the letters "POLICE" emblazoned across them. We continued chanting together, "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. . . . " Jusan "assumed-the-position" at the back wall of his cell. They entered the cell. Men with shields covered him from each side, others chained his legs, wrapped chain around his waist, cuffed his hands and locked the handcuffs in front to the chain. "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. . . . "

We were guided into the short hallway that comprised "the last mile." The hall was lined with men dressed in black wearing helmets and boots. The hall itself was no more that 15 feet long. We approached our "shrine." It was a cardboard box, covered with a piece of felt on which rested a small brass Buddha figure. Our chanting continued; we turned to face the Buddha and bowed once. We bowed in reverence for the awakened state of mind that manifests in all beings. We took four more steps and were halted by the men in command. We had arranged to be able to bow to each other three times and to embrace before he entered the "death chamber." I turned around to face Jusan; we were still chanting. We bowed three times, one for the Buddha, one for the Dharma and one for the Sangha. We stopped chanting; the next few seconds was "our time." I looked directly into his face; I saw a single tear glisten as it rolled from his right eye down his cheek. I could see every pore of his skin, each individual hair in his goatee, the colors of those hairs in a salt and pepper mix. I saw his wonderful smile; I could feel waves of tremendous gratitude pouring from his heart. Time stopped . . . There was only Jusan and Kobutsu, two old friends saying good-by at the end of the road. No one else was present in all creation at that moment, time dilated to an infinite degree . . we are still there, saying good-by, forever. . . . .

We embraced, he whispered in my ear, "I love you my brother, thank you so much." I took one step backward and we did an "unauthorized" bow to each other - as we bowed, our foreheads touched. The impact of forehead on forehead was the last contact we made; it was shocking to me; it was an unexpected contact; neither of us had planned, yet it somehow was incredibly apropos. It was 8:51 PM, real-time. Our chanting resumed "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. . ." The men at my sides quickly ushered me out a side door, as Jusan was propelled into the "death chamber". When I stepped outside, I saw the waiting hearse; I felt totally empty. I was brought around the small "death house" building to the entrance of the "viewing room" at the top of a short flight of steps. After a brief delay I was allowed in. Still chanting, I stood at the front of the room as close to the large picture window and adjacent security door as I could. The official witnesses entered the room and seated themselves in the nicely upholstered chairs. There was a dark curtain drawn behind the long rectangular picture window looking into the "death chamber." I continued chanting ". . . I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. . . ."

At 9:01 the curtains abruptly opened - there was an intense visual shock as the bright light of the "death chamber," with its clinically white walls and furnishings flooded into the "viewing room." To my left in the "death chamber", Jusan was restrained to a gurney, both arms tied to supports extending diagonally from the gurney. His head was held in place and prevented from moving by two vertical plates and a forehead strap. He remained perfectly still, he kept his eyes closed. According to Warden Reed, the last thing that Jusan saw was a picture of the Buddha held by his executioner, the Director of the Department of Correctional Services, Mr. Larry Norris. Warden Reed said that before the curtains opened Mr. Norris showed Jusan the picture, he closed his eyes and nodded to indicate that he had seen the picture.

At the rear of the "death gurney" there were two intravenous solution stands each with a plastic IV bag containing liquids; these bags contained the physiological saline to maintain the IV feed. I saw one IV line entering Jusan's right arm. His body was covered by a white sheet extending from his feet to breast level which served to hide the restraints that were keeping his body immobile on the death gurney. Later reporters told us that he was covered more fully than others executed before him; it was simple to see that they were attempting to cover as much of his rakusu as possible. He was allowed to wear his rakusu but not his monk's robe. I had negotiated with the correctional officials, particularly Dr. Max Mobley (a medical doctor who functions as a member of the execution team!) to get them to recognize the religious significance of the rakusu and to allow him be killed in this vestment. Only the straps of his vestment were visible above the cover sheet. On one strap of his rakusu was paper-clipped a photograph of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. His Holiness' head was visible peaking out from under the sheet. Jusan had made me promise that I would hold onto that picture after his death and present it, along with a white silk scarf, to His Holiness in person.

Mr. Larry Norris stood behind Jusan. He was dressed in a dark business suit; he wore a headset equipped with a microphone. On the wall was a large digital clock that displayed the time in bright red numerals. To his right was the "one-way" mirror, behind which sat the two anonymous executioners, isolated from each other. These people actually push the buttons to start the flow of a series of three lethal drugs into the veins of the helpless human being strapped to the table. Somehow this macabre charade is intended to assuage the responsibility of the prosecutors, the judges, and the juries, who tried Jusan twice for his crimes, Governor Huckabee, Director Larry Norris, Assistant Director Guntharp, Warden Reed, the officials, officers and staff that served as their accomplices in homicide.

At 9:04 PM the Director announced:

"A lethal injection was administered at 9:01 PM and the coroner has pronounced Sifu William Frank Parker dead at 9:04 PM this eighth day of August, 1996, thereby carrying out the judgment and sentence of the Circuit Court of Benton County Arkansas, of death by lethal injection. Such judgment having been entered March 28th, 1988 pursuant to the verdict of a lawfully constituted jury which found him guilty of the crime of capital murder."