June 17, 2019

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Zen Priest Alan Senauke Writes — The Execution of Young Elk

Alan Senauke, a priest at the Berkeley Zen Center and the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, writes about the March 15, 2000 execution of Young Elk:

We have been here before, sitting zazen outside the gates of San Quentin prison on the eve of an execution. Each time I drive across the Richmond Bridge and see the prison on its bare point of land to the south, I want to turn around. But we all keep on. Last year we sat in wind and pouring rain before the executions of Jay Siripongs and Manny Babbitt. Tonight the weather was unseasonably warm for the middle of April, and blessedly dry for a change. But if anything, the large crowd that gathered to bear witness to the execution of Darrell Young Elk Rich by lethal injection was more than usually charged emotionally. A quarter mile from the death chamber, more than seven hundred people—some grieving, some despairing, some few actually celebrating this execution—kept vigil. The encouraging fact is that this is the largest gathering I have seen at San Quentin.

I had a hopeful sense the our movement in opposition to the death penalty is gaining momentum. In the crowd were about one hundred Buddhists and people of other faiths sitting upright. Twenty feet away, beyond an iron gate, helmeted police stood at attention. We could see each other clearly. Together we remained in silence until we learned that the sentence had been carried out. Darrell Young Elk Rich was pronounced dead at 12:13 am on Wednesday, March 15.

Outside the gates, it was a long and very difficult night. Speeches opposing the death penalty were often strident and angry. On the other side, the small number of death penalty supporters were outraged. To their minds, opposition to the execution of Darrell Rich translated directly as insult to the memory of his victims. For much of the evening these two contending positions vied for our attention with sheer volume and intensity.

Near where we were sitting a disturbed man railed at the crowd through a bullhorn. He was tall and blond, around fifty, with several layers of mismatched clothing, several day's of beard, and a wild energy that steered him through vituperation, black humor, and fear. Monitors in yellow vests attempted to surround him, and he responded by wading further into the midst of the meditators until he came to be standing directly in front of me. I wondered what to do. Could I help him in any way or should I keep my seat? Another monitor came around behind him and tried to wrestle his horn away. I stood up to intervene. Clearly, force was just feeding the fire of his fear. I could see that in his eyes. I could also see that he couldn't keep at this much longer. And fortunately that was the case. Kind people talked him down from his fear. I was grateful that violence had been avoided...and that we didn't have to listen to him any longer.

Near eleven pm representatives of various faith traditions called forth a spirit of healing and presence. The whole crowd became quiet and attentive. These are the words I offered, which were followed by Native American drumming and chanting:

The state of California, the state in which we live, will soon take the life of Darrell Young Elk Rich. Twenty two years ago, the lives of four young women Annette Edwards, Patricia Moore, Linda Slavik, and Annette Selix were senselessly and violently ended at the hand of Darrell Rich. These were unconscionable acts to which Darrell Young Elk Rich confessed and for which he has expressed remorse. The terrible reality is there is no way to bring back four women's lives. And yet there is also no scale by which we can weigh the lives of one against another. All life is precious.

This execution, draped in the trappings of clinical precision, is a shameful illusion of justice done in all of our names. I grieve for the women Young Elk killed, for Young Elk himself, for the warden and guards who carry out the execution, for a governor whose heart is fenced in by politics. Now is the time for our grief and compassion.

We call on Buddhas, fearless Bodhisattvas, and great spirits of all traditions abiding with compassion in every directions, charged with the protection of all beings, to watch over Darrell Young Elk Rich as the world fades for him and he takes a great leap into the ocean of all existence. May he, may his victims, together with all beings, all of us, be free and completely enlightened.

Darrell Rich's case involved a series of sexual assaults and particularly brutal murders of at least four young women in Shasta County, California during 1978. His own confession resolves any issues of innocence. Darrell Rich killed two teenagers, Annette Edwards and Patricia Moore, by crushing their heads with rocks. He shot Linda Slavik, a twenty-eight year old, a mother of one, later recounting to his friends her pleas for mercy. Annette Selix, age eleven, was thrown alive from a 105-foot bridge. She crawled into a fetal position and drowned in her own blood .

These are horrible crimes. As the father of a young girl I can hardly allow my mind to settle on the details, on terror the girls must have felt before they died, and on the long suffering of their families in the years since. Consequences are appropriate here. Our children and our communities should not experience this kind of violence.

Yet I also believe that in ten or fifteen or twenty years a person can change. He can even be redeemed. It is true that I did not know Darrell Young Elk Rich, so I do not presume to say what changes may have transpired. But as a Buddhist, I know that things change, people change. It is a fundamental point that each of us can actually experience by paying very close attention to ourselves. If I did not believe this, know it in my bones, then I would necessarily be standing outside the bounds of all the world's faith traditions.

At San Quentin Darrell Rich found his own sustaining faith tradition, something he did not have in 1978 when he committed his crimes. His adoptive mother had always told him that he was Indian by birth. In prison Darrell Rich studied Native American ways and when he finally saw his adoption papers in 1990, Los Angeles County records listed both parents as "Indian/Irish." One of Young Elk's lawyer, James Thompson writes:

Shortly before his execution, Young Elk discovered that his maternal great-grandmothers and his paternal great-grandfather were full-blood Cherokee. He was proud of his ancestry. That is why it was so important to have the prison change his race identification, and have everyone refer to him as Young Elk, a name he had taken and then had been bestowed on him by his Native American spiritual advisor.

Although Young Elk learned that he was descended from the Great Cherokee Nation, he practiced the pan-Indian religion, which was taught to him by his Native American Spiritual Advisors. He practiced his Native American religion for over a decade. He was a member of the American Indian Spiritual Group at San Quentin since 1990.

In 1996 and 1997, Young Elk had contacted the Indian Law Clinic in Colorado, seeking access to the Native American Sweat Lodge already located in San Quentin, where ceremonies have been held at San Quentin for non-death row inmates since the 1980s. The prison denied these requests. Young Elk's last wish was again for a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, where he could receive last rites and express his remorse with prayers, sacraments and offerings. San Quentin's warden Jeanne Woodford and a federal judge denied this ritual purification.

Sadly this comes as no surprise. If the prison and the courts were to concede the humanity and spirituality of those who are condemned then the whole edifice of capital punishment would be undermined. We are meant to see these men and women as inhuman monsters. If their behavior has been peaceful for years and years, we are not to be hoodwinked. It is just another trick, a devilish con. To see those on death row like ourselves in different circumstances, as men and women-people who for a variety of reasons may have done awful things (though, as we know, some are completely innocent)-to see them this way would bring a quick end to the death penalty.

In the evening before his execution Young Elk took part in a Native American pipe ceremony led by his spiritual advisor, Leonard Foster. He was permitted to carry an eagle feather into the death chamber. Young Elk's last spoken word was, "Peace." He donated his final meal to feed the homeless. Jim Herron Zamora, a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, described his passing:

As the lethal chemicals were pumped into his body, his jaw clenched but his breathing continued, then slowed. Several minutes later, his chest convulsed a couple of times. Then he stopped moving. The foot-long Indian ceremonial feather quivered with each breath. It became still as Rich's chest stopped moving and his life ceased. A few minutes later, a guard in the witness room received a small slip of paper passed through a portal in the door. The guard read it, then announced that Rich had served his death sentence.

At 12:20am one of Young Elk's supporters put on a tape of new-age sounding Native American chanting, explaining it was Young Elk's request that this be played after his passing. We packed up our cushions and clothes and walked slowly from the gates with this music in our ears. The next morning, after four hours of sleep, I woke with a sinking feeling, recalling that the music playing as we left San Quentin was hauntingly sung by young women's voices. Maybe, even after twenty-two years, Young Elk was not done with the karma of his violence against those young women so long ago. Of course it is also possible that his choice of song, conscious or not, precisely marked the completion of this circle of action. We will never really know. Certainly it is not complete for the family of his victims, nor for those of us living in the state that put him to death. I wondered what to do.

At Berkeley Zen Center, where I live and practice, we performed a short memorial service for Young Elk, his victims, and their families on the morning following the execution. I copied a photograph of Young Elk from a newspaper and placed it on the altar in my study. There is also a Zen ceremony-a series of rituals, really-translated as Eight Exhortations for the Dying and the Dead. A priest, like myself, sits with the dying person, with the body, then with the thought of that person. At each stage the deceased is urged to let go of his or her karma and attachments to the life that is fading. Let go of fearful states of mind that may arise as one enters the eternal realm. Use the fear itself as an ally to move towards peace. The fifth exhortation, to be read ten days after death begins:

If you missed salvation during the previous seven days you will, from today, be meeting the angry deities and demons and these will continue to threaten you for the next seven days. Because you have not yet entered into the Great Dharmakaya through familiar, loving emanations, It now shows you the confusions of your own mind so that you may be driven by your own fear to abandon your false views of self and merge with the True Self.

I pray that Darrell Rich will be at peace, far from the hell realms and the fate of hungry ghosts. In those prayers I call the names of Annette Edwards, Patricia Moore, Linda Slavik, and Annette Selix, that they are resting easy after all they endured.

In this one long night suffering unfolded anew. Twenty two years after a series of terrible crimes, Darrell Young Elk Rich's life had been taken in retribution. Some people felt that justice had been served. Others, like myself, believe that anger and violence have been given further fuel.

There are five hundred fifty-four men on death row in San Quentin. Eleven women are being held in Chowchilla. It is possible that no more people will die at San Quentin this year. This gives us all more time to work for an end to the death penalty, but it also gives condemned men and women another year in limbo, wondering about their fate. Many have already been ten or twenty years on death row. How long will they be with us? And how many more midnights must we sit by the prison gates in sadness and determination, with open hearts and our solemn vow to protect all life?


A Further Thought on Jarvis

On the night of Young Elk's death, sitting with strong feelings in the storm of emotions surrounding us, my thoughts kept coming back to Jarvis Masters. What was this night like for my friend Jarvis and the many others unknown to me on Death Row? I wondered how I might feel on such a night if I were to live among the condemned. For Young Elk, for Manny Babbitt and Jay Siripongs, years and decades of legal procedures, appeals, stays, and delays just ran out. Execution by the state was finally inescapable. A fearful dream made real. Regardless of innocence or guilt, how is one to meet and endure such a passage?