A Prayer for the Living, A Prayer for the Dead

How faith permeated the execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades

| November 23, 2011
Protesters outside the Idaho State Correctional Institution pleaded for justice, mercy and a stay of execution in the minutes prior to the lethal injection of Paul Ezra Rhoades.
- George Prentice
Protesters outside the Idaho State Correctional Institution pleaded for justice, mercy and a stay of execution in the minutes prior to the lethal injection of Paul Ezra Rhoades.

Brent Reinke, director of the Idaho Department of Correction, is a man of faith. On his desk at the Boise headquarters of IDOC, among the stacks of legal briefings and operational procedures that detailed the Nov. 18 execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, stood a framed prayer, culled from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

"Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment," reads the prayer. "Bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future."

In the final days leading up to Rhoades' death, Reinke was asked countless questions about the execution chamber and chemicals to be used in the lethal injection. But when BW asked Reinke about how he reconciled his faith with his ultimate responsibility of putting a condemned prisoner to death, he was a bit surprised but nonplussed.

"That's a great question," said Reinke, pausing to think for a moment. "Where I come from--as a spiritual standpoint and a personal standpoint--I'm comfortable with this, mainly because it's the policy of the State of Idaho."

It was policy and, more precisely, the directions from judges and juries that decided Rhoades' fate--that he would be put to death for his crimes. Idaho's judicial system determined that Rhoades was responsible for terrorizing Eastern Idaho in 1987, when three people were murdered in three weeks. Rhoades was sentenced to death for the kidnappings, tortures and murders of Stacy Baldwin and Susan Michelbacher. He received two additional life sentences for the murder of Nolan Haddon.

The prayer that sits on Reinke's desk was only one faith-based plea that would be offered in the days, hours and minutes leading up to Rhoades' death. In spite of the often-referenced separation of church and state, spiritual guidance was continually interjected into the string of events. No less than Pope Benedict XVI begged for a stay of execution, appealing to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's faith (following high school, Otter briefly studied for the Catholic priesthood at St. Martin's Abbey in Lacey, Wash.).

"I reiterate the commitment of the Holy Father to uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life," wrote Monsignor Jean-Francois Lantheaume, charge d'affaires on behalf of the Pope. "I hope that you will give heed to his petition."

The Rev. Michael Driscoll, bishop of the Idaho Catholic Diocese, made a similar plea.

"Other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life," wrote Driscoll.

Otter's office received hundreds of letters, emails and posts to his official Facebook page, most pleading for a stay of execution and many appealing to the governor as a man of faith.

Meanwhile, Rhoades' faith was reportedly becoming more important to him as well. Spending his final days in F Block of the Idaho Maximum Security Institute, Rhoades met frequently with an unidentified spiritual adviser. In fact, the adviser was one of only four individuals who met with Rhoades every day leading up to his execution--the others being his attorney (Oliver Loewy), his mother (Pauline Rhoades) and a sister.

"He has been doing a lot of reading of the Bible," Reinke told BW two days before the execution. "He has been spending a lot of time with the Bible and an additional book, which is scripture-based."

Several hours before his execution, Rhoades was allowed to keep one spiritual item, the Bible, when the rest of his personal belongings were taken away and inventoried.

Meanwhile outside the gates of the prison, prayer was the order of the day as approximately 50 members of Idahoans Against the Death Penalty stood in sub-freezing temperatures, shrouded by charcoal-black clouds with prayers for Rhoades, his family and even his executioners.

"As citizens of this state, we are appalled that this killing is being done in our name," said Mia Crosthwaite, a member of the group.

Crosthwaite led a string of prayers. circled by a few dozen others holding signs, like "What Would Jesus Do?" and "Life in Prison=Justice. Killing=Vengeance." She also offered prayers for Rhoades' victims.

"Stacy Baldwin was only 21 when she was murdered," said Crosthwaite. "Today's execution is one more pain of so many that Stacy's family never deserved. We remember her family, all those who loved her, and all those who will still feel her loss."

The prayers continued right up until the minute of Rhoades' execution.

"There are about 20 employees of the Department of Correction serving on the execution team," said Crosthwaite. "They will carry memories of what they did today for the rest of their lives. Today the entire prison is mobilized around this execution. Every prisoner, every guard, every prison official knows what is happening. Some will be haunted by it."

With a precise dosage of chemicals coursing through his veins, Rhoades died at 9:15 a.m. on Nov. 18. Within 90 minutes, Otter offered a final statement of faith.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, the mother of Paul Ezra Rhoades and everyone who has been impacted by these crimes," wrote Otter. "The State of Idaho has done its best to fulfill this most solemn responsibility with respect, professionalism and most of all dignity for everyone involved."

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