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Students attend vigil at prison during execution

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April 1, 2011

By David Eck

ARCHDIOCESE — Standing in the rain watching a hearse leave the grounds of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville on March 10, about 30 students from Catholic high schools in the Cincinnati archdiocese experienced the reality of capital punishment.


The hearse was carrying the body of Johnnie Baston, who had just been executed. The students were among those protesting the death penalty with a vigil when Baston was put to death.


Baston, who was convicted of killing a Toledo store owner in 1994, died from an overdose of pentobarbital. It was the first time a person had been executed with a single drug in the United States.


The experience was emotional for the students.


“We were just standing there praying, hoping that they wouldn’t kill him. I’m trying to step up, and this is something I believe in,” said Andrew Ladouceur, a junior at St. Xavier High School. “I’ve always considered it kind of weird that we would do this. It’s taking someone’s life. That doesn’t exactly seem just to me.”


On the way to the prison, the students learned about Baston. They also learned how the death penalty, because of the required court hearings and legal maneuvers, cost more than keeping someone in prison for life. After the execution, the students visited state legislators in Columbus to ask them to abolish capital punishment in the state.


Students from St. Xavier, Mother of Mercy, Mount Notre Dame, St. Ursula Academy, Elder and La Salle high schools participated. The trip was part of Cincinnati’s Catholic Social Teaching Action Team.


“The goal was to raise awareness about the death penalty and to be in solidarity with Mr. Baston, his family and the victim’s family,” said Matt Kemper, director of community service at St. Xavier. “I think now, too, they have an appreciation for the legislative process and the challenges to impact that.”


The students were bolstered by legislation that ended the death penalty in Illinois, which was signed into law the day before. The fact that it could be done in a neighboring state gave them confidence it could be pursued in Ohio, Kemper said.


Students experienced a wealth of emotions during the day, including sadness, confusion, frustration and hope they could help end capital punishment in Ohio.


Melanie Leonard, a St. Ursula Academy junior, said she didn’t have a position on the death penalty before the trip, but the experience helped her become an opponent of the practice.
Particularly upsetting to Leonard in the Baston case was that the victim’s family didn’t want him put to death for the crime and appealed for clemency.


“I was appalled by the fact that we were still going through with it when the victim’s family didn’t want it,” she said. “Ultimately, I feel like the victim’s family should have the final say in whether or not he’s executed. Their opinion should matter.”


She encourages everyone to attend an execution vigil and research the topic, regardless of his or her opinion on the death penalty.


She also would like to begin a letter-writing campaign to state senators and raise public awareness about the emotional and financial costs of capital punishment. Her interest in working to abolish the death penalty in Ohio was enhanced after her visit to the prison.


“I have this feeling that I have a voice now because of what I experienced. Not everybody has experienced it,” Leonard said. “I would like to get more one-on-one conversation with legislators and get them to change their minds and the law.”


Caroline Meyer, a sophomore at Mother of Mercy High School, wants to use the feelings and events from the trip to educate others about the issue.


“After I had the experience I knew there was no reason for capital punishment,” Meyer said. “What affected me was the feeling of helplessness I had while he was being killed, and there was nothing I could do to change that.” 


David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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