Chaplain At An Execution (Oct 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Al Maxey

This coming November 6, on the first Tuesday of the month, the people of this great nation will be asked to make a momentous choice. I pray we all take that choice seriously, and that it is preceded by much prayer and reflection. But this article is not about the coming election. Rather, it is about an event that also occurred on a November 6, but in the year 2001. This event was the culmination of the most difficult choice I have had to make in my 36 years of ministry. On that day I stood inside an execution chamber at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe at the side of a man who was being executed for one of the most horrific crimes in our state’s history.

In 1986 he had kidnapped, raped, murdered and dismembered a little 9-year-old girl named Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia, NM. I stood only a foot away from the table upon which he was strapped, looking into his eyes, as he paid the price for his crime. His name was Terry Clark. He was 45 years old. A Navy veteran. My friend. My brother-in-Christ, whom I had baptized. And also the only man to be executed in our state in over half a century. Let me share with you this compelling account of this life-altering choice God called me to make.

In 1986, I was serving as the Pulpit Minister for the Church of Christ in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I served this congregation for eight years (1984-1992). The year before, I also took on the responsibility of being one of the Assistant Protestant Chaplains at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, a maximum security facility. I served in this capacity for seven years, and was authorized by the Corrections Department to visit the inmates in their cells, offer counseling, and to conduct worship services there each month. It was at this time that the people of our state heard the terrible details of the fate of the little girl from Artesia. As you can imagine, people were outraged. It was a crime that was so brutal it left people wondering how anyone human could do such a thing to someone else, much less to a precious little girl. I was as furious as anyone. My own sons were about that age at the time, and I remember thinking about how I would love to get my hands on the person who did this.

As I was soon to find out, our God certainly works in a strange way, for He literally placed this man in my hands. To make a long story short, the rapist/murderer was captured, tried and found guilty. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection (the method of execution in our state). He was then transported to the Penitentiary of New Mexico. Just before he arrived, I received a phone call from a Church of Christ preacher in Texas. He informed me that he was Terry Clark’s uncle. He knew that I was authorized to minister to the prisoners, and he asked me to please visit Terry and share the gospel with him. Terry had never accepted Christ, even though his family members were all very involved in their congregations within the Church of Christ fellowship.

I will have to be honest with you: the last thing on earth I wanted to do was visit Terry Clark and tell him of the love of God. I wanted him dead as much as anyone. Yes, I was struggling with my feelings, and I was hurting for the family of the little girl. But the family of this murderer had also reached out to me.

I had to make a choice!<br><br>I promised to visit Terry once he arrived on death row. In my mind I doubted it would go too far past that first visit. I couldn’t imagine how anyone who had done what this man had done would have any desire to have someone like me in his face. But, I kept my word and met with Terry. It was a tense first meeting. I was honest with him and told him what I was feeling about him. He said he understood. When the meeting was over, he said he would like for me to come see him again. I did. In fact, over the next six years I met with him regularly, and our visits turned into discussions about God and His Word. About a year after our first meeting, Terry told me one day he would like to be baptized. It took some time to work through the “red tape” to get this approved by the Corrections Department, but the day finally came.

To a hallway outside the execution chamber on death row, where a plastic laundry cart was set up, being filled from a garden hose, Terry was led in chains by several guards. The Catholic chaplain assisted me in helping Terry into the cart, at which time Terry gave a moving confession of Christ Jesus and I immersed him. He was then led away, dripping wet, back to his cell.

Over the next several years, Terry struggled with himself and his crimes and his faith. He had serious doubts as to whether, and how, God could really forgive him for what he did. We would study and pray together for hours as I helped him work through these issues. Adding to his, and my own, frustration was the fact that I was strongly condemned by several other preachers in the state for ministering to and baptizing Terry Clark. They not only wanted him to be executed, but to “burn in hell.” How dare I take Jesus Christ to such a man. To this day there are some who still condemn me for sharing the gospel with a child rapist and murderer.

In 1992, my family and I moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where I would serve for the next six years as the Minister for the Honolulu Church of Christ on Keeaumoku Street (just a mile from Waikiki Beach). During this time I wrote to Terry a number of times, and he would write and share his continuing struggle with his faith.

In 1998, we returned to New Mexico. I took on the work as the Pulpit Minister, and later as one of the Elders, of the Cuba Avenue Church of Christ in Alamogordo, NM, where I continue to serve to this day. I made a couple of trips to see Terry, at which time he informed me that he had instructed his lawyers to cease all efforts to “beat the death penalty.” He said he was ready to pay for his crimes, and ready to meet his Lord. He also stated that he simply wanted to give the family of his victim some peace, and he knew that this would not happened until he was gone. His only request of me was that I serve as the Chaplain for the Execution. This is a state appointed position, and involves some heavy responsibility. I told him that if the state agreed, I would serve in that capacity.

Terry made the request, and the state agreed to appoint me. A date was set for the execution – Tuesday, November 6, 2001 at 7:00 p.m. As part of my duties, I was to meet with Terry regularly to prepare him spiritually and psychologically for his execution. I made several trips up to Santa Fe to meet with Terry, with Shelly coming along as moral support for me. Terry and I talked about death and what lies beyond. We talked about his crimes, and he shared with me in great detail what had led him to do what he did. He also shared in great depth the details of his crime. It was hard to listen to, but he needed to unburden himself of it all. He revealed details that had never come out before.

As the day drew near for his execution, Shelly and I went to Santa Fe and got a hotel. I spent the last few days prior to his execution in the cell with him on death row. We sat for hours with open Bibles studying. We would pray fervently. I even ate his last meal with him (jumbo shrimp, French fries, fried okra, peach cobbler and ice cream, and Coke). I should also point out that during his last months, Terry spent much time sharing the gospel with his guards and his attorney. Indeed, most of them had become his friends.

The day of the execution I spent the entire time with Terry in his cell right next to the execution chamber. I had been instructed by the Warden to tell Terry that 6:00 p.m. was the final opportunity for him to halt the execution. I had been given a cell phone, from which I could call the Warden. At 6:00 p.m. I informed Terry that he must make his choice. Would he live or die? He thought about it for a minute, we prayed about it, and then he said to tell the Warden to proceed. At 6:54 the guards came to the cell and said, “Terry, it’s time.” I asked them to give us a couple more minutes, at which time Terry and I knelt on the floor, held hands, and I offered a prayer for him. The guards stood there with bowed heads as well.

He was led to the execution chamber and strapped down. The Warden and I went into the chamber with him. All the guards left the room and locked the door. It was just the three of us. We spoke for a moment, I said a prayer again, and then the Warden and I opened the curtains on the windows for the witnesses. The little girl’s family was there, and I know this was a horrible moment for them also. You could see it in their faces.

The warden read the sentence, then asked Terry if he had any last words. His official final statement was “Fifteen minutes.” This was a reference to a statement in Karla Faye Tucker’s book Set Free, in which she likened the brief time until “old things have passed away” and “new things have come” to fifteen minutes. Terry hoped that in just “fifteen minutes” (i.e., a brief instant, relatively speaking) he would be at home with his Lord.

As the execution began, as the chemicals began coursing through his veins, Terry turned his head and faced me. He had previously asked if he could look at me instead of the victim’s family as he died, as he didn’t want the last thing he saw to be their hatred. He took a few deep breaths, grimaced a couple of times, and whispered, “It burns a little!” Several seconds later he stopped breathing. At 7:10, he was pronounced dead. He had told me as he was being led into the execution chamber, “When you see me take my last breath, remember – your brother has gone home!” Before we had left his cell, he had handed me his Bible. Inside was this handwritten inscription, “To: Al Maxey. Thank you, my brother! May God’s grace and love rest on you always!! Love, Terry.”

The warden and I closed the curtains, and then we left the execution chamber. The half dozen guards were standing outside at attention … weeping! I had a few words with them and a prayer, then left the facility. Outside the news media were gathered, and a state police officer showed me where the TV news anchors were set up, as they wanted a live TV interview with the Chaplain. I appeared on a couple of the stations’ evening news, telling what had happened. Then I returned to the hotel where Shelly, my wife, was waiting to offer much-needed comfort, support and perspective. She was a godsend in the whole matter.

On the Sunday following the execution, at the Cuba Avenue Church of Christ, the congregation sang, at Terry’s request, “Amazing Grace.” What made all of this even more amazing is that the little girl’s cousin was there – she is a member of this congregation. Yes, she struggled for a time with my choice to minister to Terry, but in the end came to appreciate God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy.

It has been 11 years since the execution of Terry Clark, and 26 years since God called me to make a choice. At the time, it was a difficult choice for me; my emotions and feelings got in the way of God’s calling. Looking back, I know I made the right choice, even though it led to a great deal of personal sacrifice and pain. I learned, however, that when God calls us to make choices in life, He doesn’t promise they will be easy ones. What He does promise is to give us the power and strength to meet the responsibilities and challenges of those choices. I pray I never have to go through such an experience again. But, if I do … if God calls me to such a choice in the future … I know He will be with me every step of the way. What an awesome God we serve!

categoria commentoNo Comments dataDecember 5th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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