A Local Push to End Life of Indiana’s Death Penalty Law
By: Hilary Powell
“Bless you. Bless your heart,” George White says at our meeting.
Before you begin conversation with him it’s there: A constant comment and a selfless salutation.
A greeting of grace.
“Instead of saying something bad about somebody perhaps the emphasis bless their hearts,” he says. White, 65, says the hospitable phrase repeatedly. Perhaps he picked it up while serving as a Sunday school teacher back in Enterprise, Alabama in 1985. “It is a southern expression, obviously,” he says.
But when I meet him at Grand Park Cafe in Merrillville, Indiana I share my coffee with a mane once convicted then exonerated of murderer. “My wife Charleen was murdered, and that night my wife and I were shot and left for dead. I was then 16 months later charged capitally with the murder of my wife,” he says. In 1985, a robber shot White, then-36, and his wife Charleen. He survived, she died. “Not all murder victim family members go to something like hatred. I did.” But what he also almost went through was time on Alabama’s Death Row. It’s a reality only about a dozen other men currently on Indiana’s Death Row can understand.
“However I received a life sentence. I spent two years, 103 days in an Alabama prison. I understand how you can go from violence to anger to a desire for revenge and retribution,” he says. White is now co-founder of “Journey of Hope” an international group that advocates against the death penalty. He travels to teach people to forgive.
“If somebody does something not too good to you, huh, bless your heart,” he says laughing. “Let’s go to forgiveness as quick as we can. Your anger or your hatred or any of those things have no affect on the person that has done you the wrong. The anger can destroy you.” White says he doesn’t want the death penalty for the man who killed the mother of his children, Tom and Christine. “I and my children had to reconcile with the man that murdered my wife has never been caught has never been held accountable,” he says. “We struggle with that every day. I no longer want him killed. Now, yes, I do want him held accountable.
A senator from East Chicago wants to remove death as an option for murder cases. State senator Lonnie Randolph (D- East Chicago) authored Senate Bill 136 which would abolish the death penalty and reduce punishment for inmates awaiting execution to life in prison without parole.
It’s based on a personal conviction after spending years as a public defender. “There was a death penalty I was involved with. I involved with one where I was the defense attorney for the individual that got the death penalty. And we thought life imprisonment would be the appropriate punishment. The law says and our state constitution states that the first subjective is rehabilitation not vindictiveness. Another word for that is revenge,” the senator says.
He says although the legislation has little chance in a republican majority senate, the majority of republicans support the death penalty. “Chances are not very likely that my bill will get heard,” he says. But Randolph says he hopes to inspire conversation about topics like forgiveness and rehabilitation.
“Now there’s discussion so that’s a step forward,” he says.
He also says it’s about saving taxpayer money. A 20-10 report from the legislative service agency found the cost of a death penalty case was five times that of a lifetime incarceration. For the man who carries his wife’s photo and a cordial greeting wherever he goes forgiveness starts with forgetting hate.
“Forgiveness is about forgiving it to God,” White says. “That doesn’t mean you don’t want to hold that person accountable. But the anger grips you and keeps you from feeling the sunshine. Let go of the anger.”
Journey of Hope