Life After Death

Thomas More alum discusses new life as spiritual advisor for death row inmates

Apr 3, 2012 at 12:11 am

Sometimes really big changes can happen due to the smallest of reasons. For Dale Recinella, his life underwent a major transformation after having a plate of raw oysters for dinner one night in the late 1990s.

A corporate attorney working in international finance, Recinella was enjoying a comfortable lifestyle in southern Florida with his wife and five children when the change occurred. He became violently ill after eating the oysters and fell into a coma; perplexed doctors at a Tampa hospital told his family to expect the worse.

But Recinella, a devout Catholic who got his undergraduate degree from Thomas More College in Northern Kentucky and graduated law school at Notre Dame University, said he had a religious experience while unconscious. In his fevered state, Recinella saw Jesus Christ, who asked him what he had accomplished with the gifts he had been given.

“We had quite an exchange,” Recinella recalled, laughing. “At first, I denied having any of his gifts.”

Filled with what he described as “the acidic terror” of realizing he hadn’t been of true service to others during his life, Recinella pledged to do better if he recovered. Within 48 hours, he regained consciousness and was well enough to be discharged. Years later, doctors would learn a flesh-eating bacteria within the shellfish was responsible for his brush with death.

Whether it was a divine encounter, a guilty conscience or some other reason, Recinella’s epiphany resulted in his decision to become a volunteer lay chaplain to the roughly 400 inmates on Florida’s death row, as well as to the 2,500 people held in solitary confinement in that state’s prison system. Still, his metamorphosis was just beginning.

As he began to get acquainted with the men on death row and saw first-hand how executions were carried out, Recinella — who had been a death penalty supporter — slowly converted into a vocal opponent of capital punishment after realizing how arbitrary and imperfect the system was.

“Believe me, you don’t want to see one. There is this myth that we can find a nice way to kill people. It doesn’t exist,” he said. “And the people who are near (the execution), it damages them the most.”

Recinella, 59, spoke March 29 at Thomas More about his experiences. He is the author of Now I Walk on Death Row: A Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles into the Arms of a Loving God, along with numerous articles about the death penalty. He was joined by his wife, Susan, a clinical psychologist who counsels the families of death row inmates.

Since 1973, 140 prisoners on death rows throughout the United States have been exonerated of their crimes, including six in Ohio. With that number in mind, capital punishment opponents like Recinella wonder how many innocent people haven’t been cleared in time and were put to death.

Statistics show that 94 nations, including most democracies like Canada and those in the European Union, have abolished capital punishment, while 10 others only allow it under special circumstances.

Fifty-eight nations allow the death penalty, with most of them totalitarian in nature such as China, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

There is a wide disparity between how many U.S. Catholics view the death penalty and the church’s official teaching, Recinella noted.

Although many followers support it, Pope John Paul II issued an edict in March 1995 that expressed the church’s near-total opposition. John Paul II wrote that execution is only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Later in his life, the Pope moved even further against capital punishment. “May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world,” John Paul II said during a prayer at a Rome prison in July 2000.

Recinella is often the last person that a death row inmate sees before he or she is killed. After an execution date is set, which is an excruciatingly complicated process that can take years, Recinella has six weeks to prepare the inmate spiritually and mentally for what lies ahead. On the day the sentence is carried out, he stays with the inmate for the last five hours of that person’s life.

Recinella is present in the small audience that watches the execution, he said, so the inmate can look into the eyes of someone that cares for him in his last seconds of life.

Despite FBI statistics and other studies that have proven capital punishment doesn’t provide deterrence for homicides, many politicians continue their support to appear tough on crime.

Recinella recalled one incident in which an inmate was executed as the daughter of the person he killed watched. Once completed, the woman confided to Recinella that she didn’t feel the sense of closure that prosecutors told her she would. In fact, while some prosecutors who were present were celebrating, the victim’s daughter said she merely felt empty.

“In the moment that he died, she knew nothing had changed,” Recinella said. “The politicians had another notch on their belt but she didn’t experience any healing … who was that execution really for?”

The attorney turned lay minister doesn’t consider himself a bleeding heart: He believes anyone who intentionally kills another should be imprisoned for the rest of their life with no possibility of parole. “That doesn’t mean they can’t have a good life,” he added, saying they can still be “part of the family of God.”

Public support for the ultimate sanction is beginning to lessen.

During the past 15 years, the number of death sentences imposed in the United States dropped by almost 75 percent, while the number of executions has dropped by almost 60 percent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

For example, the death penalty was imposed in 78 cases in 2011, down from 315 in 1996.

“I firmly believe the death penalty will come to an end,” Recinella said. “But it’s not going to just happen. It’s going to take us working for it.”