War is Peace - Freedom is Slavery - Ignorance is Strength

Monday, January 01, 2001

Divided By Predictable Lines, Culture Combatants Take Surprising Sides

-Swassilla Lake, Minnesota

Three weeks ago, Jose Rafael Dominguez was locked in a cell on Swassilla County State Penitentiary’s death row, waiting for an execution that loomed only 72 hours away. Though his guilt was not in dispute, Dominguez’s execution – the first at the prison in nearly twenty years – had drawn vociferous protests from local activists opposed to capital punishment.

While the debate in Swassilla raged on the local talk-radio airwaves, and in the homely diners and friendly coffee shops that line Swassilla’s Main Street, the case drew no national attention either from the press, or Washington based anti-death penalty organizations.

Convicted of the Aggravated Murder, First Degree Rape and Sodomy of Amy Stallman, a sixteen year-old honor student, varsity basketball player, and star of the local high school track team, Dominguez garnered little sympathy, even from those who opposed his execution. Dominguez’s guilt in the crimes has never been questioned either, given that Amy’s battered body was found buried beneath the frost bitten dirt of the desolate field behind his small ramshackle house. For those in Swassilla who opposed Dominguez’s execution, their opposition was purely a matter of principal, and a declaration of their deeply felt moral opposition to capital punishment in all cases, even those where the defendant is unquestionably guilty, and apparently deserving of any punishment, no matter how harsh.

One of the opponents of the execution, Marsha Wilcox, summed up her position this way. “Yes he’s guilty, yes he committed horrible crimes, and in my own personal opinion he does deserve to die,” she told me. “But,” she continued, “none of us, no one, and not the government either, has the right to make that choice. And if we do, we are committing murder just as much as those who we claim to be bringing to justice.”

Raising an argument often used to condemn the continuing use of the death penalty in the United States, Michael Hoff, president of Swassilla’s local chapter of Peace First – a global organization devoted to “ending war, racism, and poverty, and promoting peace” – who was the original leader of organized protest to Dominguez’s execution, cited America’s increasing deviation from the accepted norms of the global community as a prime reason to reassess our policies.

“Every nation in the industrialized world has eliminated the death penalty,” he told me, expounding on his point by reciting a short list of our allies who have eliminated the practice, “Canada, England, Germany, France – every one of them. By putting ourselves in a group with the world’s ugliest and most brutal regimes,” he continued, “such as Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and China, the U.S. has lost its credibility and moral authority on this and on so many other issues.”

For Ron Walden, Pastor of the Living Faith Evangelical Church, and frequent guest on local talk radio show “The Hard Truth,” activists like Hoff and Wilcox couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.

“In the Bible, God tells us to take ‘an eye for an eye” Pastor Ron – as he likes to be called – says, “and if the Europeans, who have embraced atheism as the foundation of their entire system of government are offended by our belief that we should live our lives in accordance with God’s will, then so be it.”

Behind the argument over the Dominguez case, and the larger debate over capital punishment in general, Pastor Ron told me that he sees a larger trend at work.

“Even though liberals espouse tolerance, claim objectivity, claim inclusiveness,” he paused for effect, or maybe to think out a continuation to his sentence, “in deed and belief they are prejudice against Christianity, and they would like nothing better than to destroy the church, and see every Christian turned away from the word of God, and the redemption of Christ’s love, and toward their own empty, meaningless world view, which is founded on moral relativism, hedonism, and ultimately, self destruction.”

Between these two diametrically opposed points of view neither Hoff, Wilcox, Pastor Ron, or any of the other citizens of this small town who I spoke to, see any hope of reconciliation. Both sides see their positions as an expression of their most deeply held beliefs, and for both, the idea of compromise on such formative principles is unthinkable, or at least it was.

On June 20, a chain of events, unimaginable to the point of fantastic, as set in irrevocable motion when Jose Rafael Dominguez, alone in his single cell, painstakingly wove a rope from strips of cloth torn out of the thin sheets and blankets that covered the lumpy mattress in his death row cell, knotted them up into a makeshift rope, and with grim determination, hung himself from the bars of his cell door.

Accustom to the random yelling and banging of inmates in solitary confinement, the guards on the block that night ignored the rattling and banging that echoed up the hall as Dominguez frantically struggled against the bars, beating on them with his fists hard enough to break five of his fingers, and fracture both of his hands, the left in three places, and his right in seven. After a few minutes, according to the testimony of the guards, the noise died away, and it was another five minutes later that they finally responded to the frantic calls of Dominguez’s fellow inmates, and walked down the block to investigate.

Upon finding Dominguez hanging limp in his cell, the two guards on duty that night reacted quickly and efficiently. One raced to open the cell, and cut Dominguez down, hacking through the improvised noose that help him with a Swiss Army knife that he carried “for good luck,” even though it was a violation of prison policy. The other guard on duty, Steven Jackson, radioed for help, and within a few minutes an EMT working for the Department of Corrections had begun to administer Dominguez Oxygen, and had managed, against all odds, to start his heart beating again. By then, an ambulance operated by the county’s volunteer fire department was on its way, and within an hour, Dominguez was in a bed in the county hospital, 28 miles away in Carlyle.

What happened that night can only be described as incredible coincidence. The slightest variance, the most minute change in the sequence or timing of the events, could have made the most profound of alterations to the eventual outcome.

What if the guards had responded just a minute sooner? Or later? What if John Jones, as straight of an arrow as can be imagined, didn’t carry a superstition so deeply held that it compelled him to violate the prison’s safety code by carrying a knife while on duty?

An even greater coincidence was that Mike Raser, the EMT whose expert care revived Dominguez’s lifeless body, wasn’t even supposed to be there that night. He worked the day shift, and due to budget cuts, the prison doesn’t have any medical staff on payroll at night. Raser just happened to be there. He had come in to work out in the guards exercise room after a bitter fight with his wife, which had started over whether or not to redo their living room with carpet or hard wood.

In any one of these variables which were not just unpredictable but clearly abnormal had been absent, Dominguez would have either lived or died that night. As it happened though, they weren’t, and as a result Dominguez did neither, and what followed only was even more fantastic.

Despite being revived, his heart stabilized and able to breath on his own again, Dominguez was still unconscious and unresponsive a week after his attempted suicide. After a battery of tests, conducted at Mercy Hospital in Minneapolis, Neurotrauma specialists at the hospital concluded that Dominguez had sustained permanent and pervasive brain damage from which he would never recover.

Upon receiving this diagnosis, and after obtaining a second independently formed assessment from a second team of specialists, officials of the Minnesota Department of Corrections met at 1:00pm Tuesday, July 5, and after a short deliberation, unanimously decided to order the removal of Dominguez’s feeding tube.

A DOC official – who cannot be identified because of a departmental ban on press contacts – who was at the meeting told me that at the time the decision was viewed as being a “no-brainer,” and that other participants at the meeting that day had even expressed relief that Dominguez’s suicide had, at the zero hour, absolved them of the responsibility to carry out his execution, thus they believed, diffusing the controversy that surrounded it. Looking back later, the same official ruefully mused that, “we couldn’t have been more wrong.”

When Father Joseph Montgomery, Priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Bogabie, MN, a neighboring town to Swassilla, was informed of the decision to removed Dominguez’s feeding tube, he tells me that he was stunned, and at first in shock. For two years Father Montgomery had visited Dominguez on death row, praying and reading the Bible with him, and as he tells it, Dominguez had developed a genuinely convicted faith in the church, and its teachings, returning to the religious roots that he had strayed so far from for so long.

According to Father Montgomery, Dominguez was genuinely contrite, and plagued by guilt over the crimes he had committed. The day of his attempted suicide, Montgomery had gone to see him, and found him to be unusually despondent. Montgomery told me that Dominguez had said “he deserved to be in hell,” to which Montgomery had responded by counseling him that “only God may judge who enters his kingdom, and only he can judge who will be cast away from him.” Father Montgomery had left that day, urging Dominguez to beg the Lord for forgiveness.

After recovering from the initial shock of the DOC decision, and deeply disturbed by his own feelings of guilt at his failure to guide Dominguez toward redemption, Father Montgomery set himself into action, determined, he told me, to do whatever it took to reverse the DOC decision to effectively end Dominguez’s life.

Father Montgomery spent that entire day, and late into the night, calling and e-mailing his superiors, associates, and friends within the church, painstakingly explaining the situation at every level, as he slowly worked his way up the church’s hierarchy. By noon the next day, Montgomery had achieved the seemingly impossible. After a short conversation with William Donahue, President of The Catholic League, it was agreed that the League would provide the legal support for a court challenge to the DOC decision, and immediately reach out to its nationwide audience to solicit their prayer and support in this endeavor.

While reaching out to national groups, Father Montgomery was also simultaneously making contact with local churches, pastors, and people of faith, and asking them for their support. In doing so, Father Montgomery told me that he was at first hesitant, knowing that, unlike him, many of the other people of faith in his community did not have any opposition to the death penalty. After a few calls, this reticence was dismissed as he found his pleas for help being met by nearly universal enthusiastic support for the idea that it would be immoral to allow Dominguez to die, by withdrawing the medical care that was keeping him alive.

It was at this point that Father Montgomery called me - we had spoken before when I was doing interviews related to the debate over Dominguez’s execution - and brought me up to date on the rapidly developing events that had dramatically shifted the entire debate on the case. When Montgomery told me that an interfaith group, co-organized by Pastor Ron and himself, was planning a Sunday afternoon rally and potluck in a park across from the hospital where Dominguez was now receiving care, and that the rally had the stated purpose of praying for Dominguez’s recovery, and protesting the decision to remove his feeding tube, I knew that things had shifted dramatically indeed.

As soon as I was off the phone with Montgomery I immediately called Pastor Ron, who I reached on his cell-phone, after jumping through many hoops to track him down. Listening to him speak, I nearly fell out my chair when he told me that “Jose should not, and cannot, be allowed to die in this way. The DOC must reinsert his feeding tube, and he must be given an opportunity to recover. It would be unconscionable to allow him to starve to death, laying in a hospital bed with the necessary means to keep him alive readily available just feet away from his dieing body.”

“But,” I hesitated, flabbergasted, trying not to scream, “you were a vigorous supporter of his execution.”

“Yes, I was,” Pastor Ron replied, “and when he regains consciousness, I will still support the carrying out of his sentence, but this isn’t an execution. He can’t be executed because of his condition, and for the state to withhold the medical care that is keeping him alive, would be the ultimate sin against God, which is why myself, my congregation, and people of faith throughout our town are joining in opposition to this action, and in prayer for Dominguez’s recovery.”

“You seem very confident that Dominguez will regain consciousness,” I asked, “does that mean that you disagree with the expert opinions cited by the DOC concluding that the damage is irreversible, and that he will never regain functional consciousness?”

Pastor Ron’s reply was emphatic, “Of course Not!” Pastor Ron stopped, and was silent for so long that I began to think he may not feel it necessary to give any additional explanation of this point, but then he did continue.

“Only God gives life,” Ron told me, “It was God’s will that Dominguez is still alive now. As we speak, thousands of Christians around the country are praying – calling out to God – for a miracle to restore Dominguez to consciousness. God has promised us, in scripture, that ‘wherever one or two of you gather in my name’ and pray, that he will answer our call, and if it is God’s will, a miracle will be performed here.”

“And then Dominguez will be executed?”

“Dominguez will die,” Pastor Ron said slowly and regretfully, “and for the horrible crimes that he committed, he does deserve to die, but Jesus offers his forgiveness to all, without exception, and it is God’s will that all who accept the savior be saved. If we can keep him alive, and stop this immoral and evil decision to let him die this way, he will die at peace with God, redeemed by the blood of the lamb, and when Christ returns, he will be reborn to live for eternity at God’s side.”

Looking for a perspective that I was sure would be different, I called Hoff again, to get his response to the sudden reversal of sorts in the position of his opponents in the debate over Dominguez’s death.

“This is preposterous,” Hoff told me. He had just read a copy of the suit filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, on behalf of Dominguez’s estranged wife, by lawyers working for The Catholic League. “Jose has a right to die,” Hoff continued, “clearly that was his will, and these so-called Christians have no right at all to interfere with the proper decision of the DOC, which is based on expert opinion, to allow Dominguez, who is now a vegetable, to die in peace.” Hoff paused to catch his breath, and then declared with disgust, “this is just the Schiavo thing all over again.”

I though about this for a minute, and then, starting slowly, as a line of questioning began to develop in my mind I asked, “So you were also opposed to the political attempts to overturn the decision to withdraw Schiavo’s feeding tube?”

“Yes,” Hoff replied, “I thought it was disgusting. It was such a spectacle, and it was nothing but politicians and ideologues capitalizing on the misery of others to try and push their own agendas.”

At this point I was feeling a little dizzy, and it seemed like every time someone opened there mouth I wanted to start screaming at them. What, I thought, is the difference between a procedural bureaucratic decision to withdraw someone’s feeding tube, and a procedural bureaucratic decision to execute someone? How can you fervently support the former and oppose the latter? I didn’t have the time or energy to get into it with Hoff, so I wrapped things up as quickly as possible, and as soon as he was off the phone, I got out of my rental car and walked into the ramshackle tavern a mile from my motel that I was parked in front of.

Inside I walked up to the sparely occupied bar, and said hi to Molly, who knew me well by now. Soon she had my usual – VO neat, and a bottle of Coors Light - sitting on the bar, and I was about to sit down, when a slurry voice called out to me from the dim smoky back corner of the bar.

I turned, and squinted into the darkness, then I recognized Tom Harding, sitting slumped over in a booth, with several empty glasses sitting on the table in front of him. I tossed my bag back over my shoulder, took a drink in each hand, and walked back to join him.

Tom Harding was the host of the local talk radio show, “The Hard Truth.” I had met him earlier when Pastor Ron had invited me to come down to the studio with him to sit in on an on air debate that he had taken part in with Michael Hoff, back when Dominguez had still been on death row. I hadn’t been too impressed with Harding’s ideology or persona, but I had gained a lot of respect for him on the personal level when during a commercial break I mentioned how much I needed a drink, and he had whispered something to one of his interns, who left and then returned with a plain paper coffee cup, which I found to be filled with ice cold beer. After taking a long drink I had given Harding, who had a matching cup of his own, a nod of appreciation.

“How are you doing buddy?” I asked, flopping down in the booth across from Harding.

“Pretty fucking shitty man,” Harding replied.

Harding went on, in a booze and profanity soaked rant, to explain to me that he had been fired from his job as General Manager of the radio station. During a live interview with Pastor Ron during his show, he had been grilling the Pastor on his fresh enthusiasm for keeping Dominguez alive, an enthusiasm that Harding didn’t share. After closing out a segment, and thinking that they were off the air, Harding had brought the level of debate down to a more frank and less FCC approved level. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t off the air, and his exclamation had been broadcast across the air to a small hoard of Pastor Ron’s congregants who had tuned in to listen.

“Sure my word choice could have been better, and I should have been sure I was fucking clear, but I stand by the substance of what I said one-hundred-percent,” Harding railed at me.

“All I did was ask him a question: ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY? Hell, I don’t even have to qualify it, HE IS FUCKING CRAZY. God damn it, some of these fuckers are worse than liberals! And now they’re going to run me out of town.” Harding trailed off, his head drooping down, and stared at his half empty bottle in silence.

“Sorry to hear it,” I said, motioning to Molly for another round as I swallowed the rest of the VO, and raised my beer to my lips.

Harding shook his head, as if trying to clear it, and then tipped his bottle back, drowning another quarter of it. “Fuck it,” Harding said dismissively, “I need to get out of this fucking shit hole any way.”

“Well, if you ever come through Portland give me a call, and we’ll get a drink.”

I drained the second VO quickly, left my beer on the table along with a $20, and got up to leave. I thanked Molly for all her hospitality on my way out, and then walked out to my car, which was already packed, ready to go. I had reservations on a 10:00pm flight back to Portland, and it hadn’t been hard to decide against rescheduling it. I was tired of this story, and I had a feeling that from there, it would only take a turn for the worse.

That Sunday Pastor Ron and his flock held their rally, and it was a great success, but their case never had an opportunity to be heard in court. The same night Dominguez went into seizures, and then, after he was administered a sedative, he died of a massive heart attack. Officials have stated that his death was caused by a bad drug interaction with an anti-coagulant that Dominguez was on, which due to an oversight, was not documented in his charts. There are no plans for an investigation.

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