Judgment day

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Indy Lifestyle Online
For 20 years Randolph Reeves has been on Death Row in Nebraska. He was born an American Indian, raised by Quakers, and, in one inexplicable outburst of violence, turned killer in his adopted community. Now those whose lives he tore apart are fighting to save him from a long-delayed appointment with the electric chair.

Randolph Reeves, born 8 February 1956, was one

of the lucky ones. For his first three years he

was Randy Blackbird, living in poverty on the Omaha Indian Reservation in eastern Nebraska, cared for mostly by his grandparents. He saw little of his unmarried mother, Grace, who was taken from him twice, first when she contracted tuberculosis and a second time when she was imprisoned for assault. But then on 7 March 1959, Randy was transported to a better life. Plucked from the reservation by the state social services, he was placed for adoption with a new, white, family some hundred miles to the southwest, in Central City. According to his Child Welfare file, Randy was "healthy and well developed for his age", but was being deprived of "necessary food, clothing, medicine, shelter and proper care".

The journey was not a rare one. Randy was among the 25 per cent of American Indian children across the US who, during the 1950s, were taken from their natural families by government authorities and transplanted into alternative - nearly always non-American-Indian - homes. The policy was at its heart racist, but was also well meant. The children, dubbed "split feathers", because their lives were torn between two cultures, sometimes did well in their new surroundings. Removed from the economic despair of the reservations, they were given all the advantages enjoyed by whites. For many, however, the dislocation between their new and their ancestral culture wrought disaster.

Randy should have fallen into the former category. His adoptive parents, Don and Barbara Reeves, were the epitome of do-gooding middle America. Both members of the Quaker church, they led a humble life in a close-knit community, farming the flat corn fields outside Central City. They had two children of their own and adopted three others, two American Indians, one of them Randy, and a Hispanic boy.

And Randy did well. At school, he played football and basketball, became a track athlete, joined the choir and excelled in the chess club. It was after he left school, when he drifted between construction jobs and started drinking, that the earlier promise began to fade. He remained popular, however. Even when drunk, he was known to help bartenders close the shop and carry the evening's takings to their cars.

What occurred in the early hours of 29 March 1980 could never have been foreseen. That night, in an alcohol- and drug-induced rage, Randy Reeves committed a terrible double murder.

Even more unlikely is the story that surrounds Randolph Reeves today. Now 42 years old, he is on Death Row in the State Penitentiary, a modern facility on the southern edge of Lincoln, the state capital of Nebraska. He appears destined to become only the fourth convict to be put to death in the state since 1976 when capital punishment was made legal again in the US. It has been pointed out that there is a certain macabre horror to the fact that Reeves, who had a tribal name at birth which means White Lightning, is scheduled to die in the electric chair.

After nearly two decades of appeals, including four at the US Supreme Court, his appointment with that chair is now perilously near. Indeed, this year, on 12 January, only a last-minute stay by the State Supreme Court saved him from his most recent date with the executioner, an appointment for two days later. About his guilt there is no argument. And yet, a passionate campaign has sprung up for clemency for Reeves. It is backed not only by groups such as Amnesty International, but by the nearest and dearest of those whom he killed - a mother and a father and a husband and a daughter.

It is a tale of white remorse, of forgiveness and of the testing of religious faith - in this case the Quaker faith. It is also about a state killing machine confronted with a circumstance it is unable to compute. Because deep within the policy of capital punishment rests the assumption that the loved ones of murder victims will always want the murderer killed too. The desire for, and right to, vengeance - if not by society as a whole, then at least by the immediately bereaved - is a cornerstone of the death penalty. What is a state to do when the bereaved reject vengeance and appeal instead for the murderer to be spared?

What happened on that fateful March night is well known. Reeves himself has confessed to all of it - or at least to the parts he could remember. After spending the day helping his grandmother take down her winter storm windows, he left her home in Central City for a normal evening's drinking. He and a friend went first to a bar in the nearby town of Hastings and then drove to Lincoln, 100 miles to the east. At the Spigot Lounge, the pair consumed eight pitchers and two six-packs of beer between them. From there, they went to another friend's house where they drank some more. Reeves also took two "buttons" - small, chewable nodules - of peyote, a spineless cactus which contains the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.

Reeves, by then belligerent according to witnesses, wanted to visit a girl's house. Riding in his friend's car, he couldn't find the right address, so he got out near where he knew another friend, Janet Mesner, was living. Mesner was occupying the caretaker's flat above Lincoln's Quaker Meeting House, a place Reeves' parents knew well. He decided to pay her a visit.

It was 3.46am when Mesner stumbled downstairs to the Meeting House to telephone the emergency services. She had been stabbed, and allegedly sexually assaulted, by Reeves, who had ripped out the phone line upstairs. He had also stabbed and instantly killed a friend who had been staying with her that night, 28-year-old Vicki Lamm. Spared, however, was Lamm's two- year-old daughter, Audrey. As the police arrived moments later, the toddler appeared downstairs crying "Mommy".

Later that morning, police picked up Reeves. He was wandering the streets of Lincoln, his fly undone and his clothes smeared with blood. Mesner, who was 30 and training to be a nurse, died later in hospital, but not before she had identified Reeves as the assailant. "I don't know why Randy would want to do this to me and my roommate," Mesner told detectives.

If Janet could not explain what had driven Reeves to such heinous violence, nor could anyone else who knew him. Both raised as Quakers, Randy and Janet had known each other most of their lives. Mildred Mesner, Janet's mother, had taught him in Sunday school. "He was a very normal boy," she told me recently. "I didn't see anything that indicated that he was violent at all." The Reeves and Mesner families farmed within a few miles of one another outside Central City and indeed were distantly related. Randy, then just 22, had been especially close to Janet's younger brothers. As far as anyone can guess, he killed Lamm, who was not a Quaker, simply because she had been a witness to his attack on Janet.

Reeves' state of intoxication became the focus of dispute at his 1980 trial. One witness testifying for the defence argued that the combination of the alcohol and peyote in Reeves' system would have sparked "fire in the brain", supporting the contention that he was incapacitated to the point where he could no longer tell right from wrong. The prosecution countered, however, that Reeves had been sane enough to break into the Meeting House and to have dispatched the two women. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder. After the presentation of a pre-sentencing report which Reeves' lawyers today say was grossly biased against him, the judge passed the death sentence.

In a gesture that foretold the forgiveness that was to come, Janet Mesner's grandmother went the following day to the Quaker Meeting House in Central City and placed two roses on the altar before that Sunday's service. "She just felt that there were two lives lost that night, Janet's and Randy's," remembers Mildred Mesner. "She thought of it, and we thought it was all right."

Interviewed in the same humble farmhouse where they raised their daughter, both Mildred and her husband, Ken, insist that they at no point felt that Randy should die for what he did. Opposition to all violence, including war and the death penalty, are important teachings of the Quaker church. That notwithstanding, a parent who loses a child to senseless violence, whatever their beliefs, might surely succumb to the wish for revenge, at least in the first days of grief. "We never did, never," replies Mildred. "On the day of Janet's memorial, I went to Randy's mother and said we did not want Randy killed."

"People suggest that this is an opportunity for closure for us and I just say, no, it isn't," adds Ken, a small-framed man with a frizz of greying hair. "There would be just no purpose in killing him."

More extraordinary still, perhaps, has been the reaction of those who were closest to the other victim, Vicki Lamm. Married and living in Oregon with her husband Gus, she had come to stay with Janet in Lincoln with two-year-old Audrey for a few days' break. She was also nearly four months pregnant. Over the years since, both Gus and Audrey, still in Oregon, had been aware that Reeves was on Death Row but never believed he would ever actually face execution. Together, they rushed to Lincoln shortly before Christmas when they learnt that, in fact, the day of Reeves' execution appeared imminent.

Over lunch in Lincoln recently, Gus told me how his brother telephoned him with the first news that Vicki had been killed. Soon, he was choking on his words, and crying. "You know, I feel like a stone skipping across water," he said, after composing himself. "Sometimes I am in the air and can look at all of this very clearly and other times I'm down in the water and I get submerged like this and all wet, but then I get out again."

But despite the pain, Lamm shares the view of the Mesners that taking Reeves' life would be pointless. "Those people who are only one degree or two degrees separated from Randy are going to have to suffer the same type of misery that I did. And I would not wish that on anybody," he explains.

Sitting beside him in the restaurant is Audrey, now 20 years old and tall with straight blond hair. If photographs don't lie, she is the spitting image of Vicki, her mother. Mercifully, she remembers nothing of that night and how she emerged from that room crying for "Mommy" only to find carnage and the police. But the shadow of what happened has never left her. And like her father, she has come to Lincoln on a very determined mission: to dissuade the state from killing her mother's murderer.

"I am my mother's representative," she says. "If she could be here, she would be saying this, I know, from the person she was and the way she lived her life. That's why I have the strength to do this."

For the Mesners, for the Lamms, for Don and Barbara Reeves, for Randolph Reeves himself and for his lawyer, Paula Hutchinson, January has been a month of soaring hopes and terrible disappointments. All seemed lost on 11 January, when the Nebraska Board of Pardons held an open meeting to consider the case one last time. Composed of three elected officials - the State Governor, Mike Johanns, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State - it had two motions before it to consider. One called for a full hearing with statements allowed from the relatives of the victims, the other for clemency for Reeves and the commuting of his sentence to life imprisonment. Both were denied. "It felt like the Governor had got me in the gut with a long pointy stick," Audrey said of the decisions. "I couldn't understand how these men could sit up there and inflict so much pain on so many people".

It seemed then that Reeves' execution three days later on 14 January was unavoidable. In a final, symbolic appeal to Governor Johanns, who had been in office for less than a week, Audrey placed 2,000 pink roses on the front steps of his mansion. Then, the next day, just 40 hours before Reeves was due to go to the chair, there was a stay of execution from the Supreme Court. Hutchinson had invoked a newly passed amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing equal treatment under the law to all Nebraska citizens. Reeves, she claimed, had received an unfair trial because he was an American Indian. A new hearing will now be scheduled to hear the arguments.

Reeves, Hutchinson told me, was "painted as a drunken Indian who went about raping and pillaging". As for the capital process, she said: "They take your name and throw it in the hat. If you're white, they'll throw your name in once. If you're any other colour, they'll throw the name in between five and 10 times. They'll shake them all up and pull out a name. That's how we decide who gets the death penalty here."

It will be a few months now before the State Supreme Court decides whether Hutchinson has an argument sufficient to spare Randy Reeves. Few in Lincoln think it likely. "He's going to be executed," said the Secretary of State, Scott Moore.

Moore concedes that he had been "unsettled" by the case, that he had taken notice of the appeals of the Mesners and the Lamms and that he himself, having met him in prison, did not consider Reeves to be a threat to society. "Mr Reeves is not a violent person, I believe," he admitted. Still, though, he had joined his two colleagues in voting against the motion at the Pardons Board for clemency. "It's just punishment. That's how I feel about it," he said.

So, the waiting resumes. Among those who feel it the most are Don and Barbara Reeves, the kindly couple who took that three-year-old American Indian into their home nearly four decades ago, changed his last name and raised him as one of their own. "He was just a kid who needed a home," Don reflects. "At the time we didn't pay much attention to his background. But even before the incident, we had begun wondering privately whether we should have tried to emphasise his Omaha Indian heritage."

But does that history, that rupturing of Randy's cultural umbilical cord, explain the violence that consumed him that night in the Meeting House? Don Reeves, his eyes brimming with sadness and puzzlement, is inclined to think not. "It's plausible, but the evidence is very thin. As far as we're concerned it's a mystery, an absolute mystery and it has always been a mystery."

But on one thing he is clear. He has no reservoir of gratitude deep enough to thank his old friends and fellow Quakers, the Mesners, or the Lamms, who are outside of his church, for their response to the tragedy and for their love for his condemned son. "If anyone is going to be sainted in the hereafter it is them"