Exonerated inmate discusses death penalty

Gary Drinkard, a former Alabama death row inmate, spoke about capital punishment and his experiences at an event hosted by the Social Justice Ministry at St. Edward Church Sept. 26. (Record Photo by Jessica Able)
Gary Drinkard, a former Alabama death row inmate, spoke about capital punishment and his experiences at an event hosted by the Social Justice Ministry at St. Edward Church Sept. 26. (Record Photo by Jessica Able)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

Seven years, eight months and 26 days. That’s how long Gary Drinkard spent in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Drinkard, a former Alabama death row inmate, spoke Sept. 26 about his experiences at an event titled “All life is sacred and valued,” hosted by the
Social Justice Ministry of St. Edward Church.

Drinkard, who is a spokesperson for Witness to Innocence — an organization made up of exonerated death row inmates which seeks to abolish the death penalty — spoke to about two dozen people at the Jeffersontown parish.

In 1995, Drinkard was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Dalton Pace, a junk yard dealer in Decatur, Ala. His conviction was overturned in 2001 on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Drinkard told those at St. Edward that there was no evidence to link him to the crime and that he had a solid alibi for the night of the murder.

He said he faced one injustice after another by the judge, the police, the FBI and even his lawyers. With scant evidence and shady testimony, Gary
Drinkard was sentenced to death by the electric chair and sent straight to death row. Only after attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights took his case was Drinkard able to get a fair trial. Eventually his conviction was reversed.

“I’ve always had a positive attitude. I’ve always felt like someone has been watching over me,” he said. “I haven’t forgiven all the way. I’m still working on it.”
Drinkard said he’s able to deal with the resentment and anger toward the judicial system by writing and talking about his experiences.

“We go all over the world telling wonderful people like you this sad, sad story, which is actually happy because life is good,” he said.

St. Edward pastor Father Joe Graffis also addressed the gathering and emphasized the church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person.

“Every person has dignity and all life is precious from womb to tomb. All life is precious,” he said. “It doesn’t just say innocent life is precious. If we follow that, then we need to look at the whole spectrum of human life issues.”

Father Graffis noted that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for a “consistent ethic of life.” Cardinal Bernardin said we “need to be consistent as a church from womb, poverty, death penalty, euthanasia — all across the board.”

Father Graffis said that in the last 20 years or so that message has become muddled.

“Certainly with Pope Francis, (he) has reaffirmed the same statements that Cardinal Bernardin said. That we need to look at all life issues; we can’t pick and choose,” he said.

Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired priest for the Archdiocese of Louisville and the chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (KCADP), said there has been a shift in the tone concerning capital punishment and that the state of Kentucky is close to abolishing the death penalty.

Father Delahanty noted that the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary held a meeting Aug. 1 not to discuss how to fix the death penalty but to discuss whether or not the death penalty is even needed.

He recalled that the joint judiciary committee had not focused a hearing on capital punishment since the penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Miriam Bird Hans, a volunteer for KCADP, offered a perspective from the side of a victim’s family. Her father was killed during a home invasion in 2006 in Africa, where he and his wife served as missionaries.

Bird Hans, who opposes the death penalty, said that forgiveness didn’t come right away for her. Her first response was anger.

She said she remembered being greatly affected by a gesture made by her mother. Immediately after two of the intruders were arrested, Bird Hans said, her mother sent a Bible to the jail with a note saying, “ ‘If anyone should have died that night it shouldn’t have been you. It’s best that it was him (her husband) because we know where he is now. And you certainly weren’t going to be there. So you might want to read this.’

“It was then that I decided if she could do that, I could do that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean at times, even now 14 years later, there can’t be random times that anger comes up.”

The program was a precursor to a series of events planned for October which is Respect Life Month, an observance sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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