By GRETCHEN KEISER | Published February 28, 2013
ATLANTA—Warren Hill received the sacraments of the Catholic Church on Feb. 14, in a confined area near his cell where he was awaiting his execution in five days.
Deacon Richard Tolcher, who had been meeting regularly with the 52-year-old and teaching him about prayer, the sacraments and the Catholic faith, baptized Hill. Then Father Austin Fogarty, who celebrated Mass in the small holding area where prisoners usually meet with lawyers, gave him his first Communion and, with the permission of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, confirmed Hill. Following Mass, Father Fogarty also gave him the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Deacon Norm Keller assisted at the Mass.
Deacon Tolcher, head of the archdiocesan prison ministry, regularly attends the Mass that is offered at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson for Death Row inmates. One day last fall, he sat next to Hill and after Mass asked if he would like to meet for spiritual direction. They began to meet regularly, arranged via the prison chaplain. Using a catechetical book, they would talk about the faith, the deacon would give instruction, and then they would pray, often the rosary and sometimes the quiet prayer of contemplation.
Hill has been coming to Mass for several months and is “very, very sincere” about his faith, the deacon said. He told the deacon he did not go to church as a child and wanted to be baptized.
When Deacon Tolcher was the clergyman designated to celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Hill, he found the familiar words very moving.
“What was really different about it was the words had so much more meaning. When you speak of everlasting life, for a baby that is far in the future. In this case it is imminent. When you speak of the Holy Spirit, you are collapsing his life into five days,” Deacon Tolcher said.
“Every part had a very special meaning,” he said. “It was the same face I’d seen extensively for the last six months, and it was the same person, and we were taking this bold step.”
“He was very happy to be there—you could see it in his face. His smile was there again. I really feel like there was an encounter with Christ,” the deacon added.
“It confirmed for me the beauty of the sacraments, not only baptism, but the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, the confirmation. He understood the significance of it. Maybe it was because of his circumstances. He fully wanted to do what he was doing,” he said.
Deacon Tolcher was to spend the day of the scheduled execution with Hill and was also asked by his attorneys to accompany him to his execution.
“When I told him that I was going to be with him and his family from morning until night if the execution takes place, he said, ‘I appreciate that.’”
Hill was been sentenced to die for beating to death his cellmate at a prison where he was already serving a life sentence for murdering his 18-year-old girlfriend in 1986.
However, a psychiatrist and two psychologists who worked for the state have recently stated that they no longer stand by their medical evaluation of 13 years ago. They testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally retarded and therefore was eligible for the death penalty. Now they have said they have more experience in making these evaluations and advances in the understanding of mental retardation now lead them to believe he would be evaluated as mentally retarded.
On Feb. 19, less than 30 minutes before the execution was to take place, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to stop Hill’s execution to consider his appeal based on this new evidence.
Deacon Tolcher said he spent the day with Hill’s sisters, and other relatives, along with another prison chaplain, as they spent time with Hill in short intervals, sometimes praying or singing hymns, sometimes just sitting together.
“I kept on the theme that you are loved. I was trying to use the time to make it a faith-filled experience. I reiterated the effect of faith and baptism in his life and what that meant. We sang all the verses of ‘Amazing Grace.’ The second time I read from the Scripture where Jesus on the cross spoke to the people on his right and his left.”
They received the news of the reprieve as they waited for a van to take the witnesses to the execution area.
An attorney got the message of the court’s decision on her phone, saying, “We got it.”
“Everybody knew exactly what she was talking about. We hugged each other. We were very excited that his life was spared. There is a stay,” Deacon Tolcher said.
Despite the action of the Court of Appeals, it is not clear what will happen next. Georgia has the highest standard to meet of any state in order to commute a death sentence of a person due to mental retardation to life imprisonment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty cannot be applied in such cases, but left it to individual states to determine how this standard is met.
Deacon Tolcher, with other Catholics, has initiated a task force that offers information about Catholic teaching on the dignity of each human life and, in this light, about opposing use of the death penalty.
“When I first came to this job, there were only 12 states that had abolished the death penalty. There are now 17 states. There are no Southern states from Florida to Texas and beyond that have abolished the death penalty. The furthest state to the South that has abolished it is West Virginia,” he said.
He emphasizes, “I don’t dispute the legal system.”
“I think people misunderstand that,” Deacon Tolcher said. “If he gets a sentence of life without parole, he will never get out. That protects society and it protects him. Is that justice? Benedict XVI says you cannot have mercy without justice or justice without mercy.”