Tuesday, April 04, 2006

And You Visited Me

From chapter 6 of And You Visited Me – a true story of Death Row friendships, by Penny Wheat, published by Monarch 2005

It’s true that no one close to me has ever been murdered; no doubt, if they were I should be full of rage and hurt and vengeance. I thank God that I have not been tested in that way. He knows our limitations and will not press us beyond our endurance. However, I do know of two deaths in particular which have touched me. Hilda Murrell was an anti-nuclear campaigner and a Shropshire rose-grower – I recall seeing the sign bearing her family name hanging over the entrance to the nursery. Hilda was something of a kindred spirit: we were both passionate gardeners, artists, music lovers and campaigners. As an opponent of nuclear power for many years, I had written countless letters to lobby for the closure of the industry, as had Hilda. She was a woman of great determination and strong convictions; she had taught herself nuclear physics in order to be able to understand the issues and answer her critics. Her concern was for future generations, and her unselfishness touched me. She died in 1984, just before she was due to present a paper at the Sizewell inquiry. The circumstances of her death were later explored in a play called Who Killed Hilda Murrell?

A second death was that of Willie MacRae, a Glasgow lawyer. Willie was a leading light in the Scottish National party and a fervent anti-nuclear campaigner. His unexplained death, almost a year to the day after Hilda’s, bore striking resemblances to hers. These two were people I hugely admired, and I corresponded with a nephew of Hilda’s and a friend of Willie’s after their deaths. Thus I had another perspective, albeit at secondhand, of the effects of violent death. I knew something of the strong emotions stirred up by such a loss.

I was also deeply affected by the [tv] film In the Name of the People. This was based on the true story of a remarkable couple, the Murphys, whose daughter Jenny was brutally murdered by John Burke. In the film, after Burke’s conviction, Jenny’s mother campaigns tirelessly to ensure that the State of Colorado puts him to death, but over time her husband’s views modify. He visits Burke in jail in Denver, and becomes even more uneasy about his execution. He persuades his wife to visit the man, and the film captures the harrowing occasion when they sit face to face for the first time and confront the reality of what Burke has done and the impact his actions have had on all their lives.

Burke also had one daughter, and pleads with the couple to take her into their home after his death, as there is no one else to care for the child. The film ends with him strapped to the gurney in the death chamber. Burke has asked Mrs Murphy to witness the end, to give her closure. As he lies there, in the final seconds, he mouths, ‘I’m sorry,’ and she mouths back, ‘I forgive you.’ The couple leave the prison with the young daughter of the man who killed their only child. It would be hard to imagine a finer example of forgiveness and reconciliation.
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