On the rainy evening of April 27, 2016, the State of Georgia executed Daniel Lucas. At age 37, he had spent almost half of his life in prison. When he was 19 years old, Daniel shot and killed an 11-year-old boy, the boy’s 15-year-old sister, and their father. But when I saw him on the day of his execution, he was no longer the same young man. He was an artist, poet, and accomplished Buddhist practitioner who had developed a network of dharma leaders and drawn supporters from around the world.
Daniel found me through that network. He had been looking for a preceptor with whom to take refuge and bodhisattva vows before he died, and someone put him in touch with me. I arranged for a senior teacher in my lineage, Shambhala Buddhism, to visit the prison and be preceptor for Daniel.
Then, after months of writing to Daniel, I decided to visit him.
He was a handsome young white man, meticulous about his appearance even in his prison uniform and very white sneakers (reserved for his infrequent visitations). He was courteous, shy, and soft-spoken. He was extremely knowledgeable about Buddhism, had been taking a rigorous correspondence course, and maintained a sophisticated meditation practice. After a while I started visiting him regularly, and for two hours every week, the two of us practiced meditation together and discussed the ways in which the dharma might be applied to reckoning with the past—even his past—and his present situation, the cruel environment of death row.
Daniel had no clear memory of the murders. He was homeless and sleeping in an abandoned car at the time. And when his accomplice, another 19-year-old, asked Daniel to join in a robbery, Daniel agreed. Then he took a handful of sedatives.
For a long time I had not wanted to know all the details of the crime. I wanted to be able to be there for Daniel in an uncomplicated way. But my husband, Dan, insisted that I know the facts of Daniel’s case, so I listened as he read to me one news article after another about the gruesome murders that had indeed been committed by the kind and gentle man I was coming to know.
On April 23, 1998, Daniel and his accomplice (who was executed in 2010) entered a house, robbed it, and left. Then, for some reason Daniel never could reconstruct, he and his accomplice returned to the house. By this time, the children had arrived home from school. The two young men tied the 15-year-old sister to a chair in the living room and brought the 11-year-old brother to a bedroom. It was never clear who did what, only that Daniel and his accomplice shot and killed these children. When the father came home, they shot and killed him too. Daniel remembers that he went to the car, retrieved a shotgun, came back, then shot each family member again before leaving. The mother arrived home to find her family murdered.
Before our first meeting, Daniel sent me a letter apologizing in advance for his social ineptitude, saying that he was much more comfortable communicating in writing than in person:
I must warn you that I am quite awkward and nervous in social situations. Communication and social interaction were not skills I developed growing up. I can write far better than I can speak.
It was true. When we met, Daniel was awkward, looking down and sitting on his hands. Even so, I noticed a lightness and brightness to him. Although his eye contact was fleeting, he smiled warmly, laughed, and nodded. This was not the depressing, uncomfortable experience that I had thought it might be.
As a child, Daniel was told outright that he was “a piece of shit.” He said, “I don’t remember having a single meaningful conversation with my parents. They never asked me about my life or taught me anything about life.” In solitary confinement, he saw for himself that he had a good mind and artistic talent. Nevertheless, he eventually came to feel that these skills did not amount to a life worth living, and they didn’t make it any easier to live with having done something terrible that he could never undo. He sank into depression and began to experience extreme physical pain.
It is easy to take for granted the ease with which dharma has become accessible today, but just four years ago, information and social exchanges were extremely restricted on death row in Georgia. There was no library, no Internet, no email, no cell phones, and even books were limited to only seven at a time.
Daniel Lucas had never heard of Buddhism. He was raised in rural Jones County outside of Macon, Georgia, and because his mother was constantly on the move fleeing abusive relationships, Daniel attended 19 schools before he dropped out entirely during his senior year of high school. Once he entered prison, he lived in one of four deathrow cell blocks, each of which had one TV positioned so that all the men on that block could see the same screen. A program was decided upon by rotation, and everyone had earplugs so that they could choose to listen or not. There was no cable.
To the disappointment of many, Daniel’s turn led mostly to PBS, where he got his first introduction to Buddhism from a program that showed Buddhist monks making a sand mandala. Everything about this was remarkable to him. He asked his one friend, a pen pal from England, to send him a book about the tradition. He followed the meditation instructions the book described and began to meditate every day, and his pain began to ease.
Over the next five years, Daniel developed a network of people who sent him books, teachings, and letters of support. This included prominent dharma masters from different Buddhist lineages and practitioners in their communities throughout the West and Asia. And eventually it included me as well.
When I first started learning more about the crime, I had badly wanted to place the blame on Daniel’s accomplice, or on his family for the abuse and neglect he had suffered, but Daniel took full responsibility for all he had done.
For many years, Daniel’s mother requested visitations, but he refused to see her. His father never even attempted to see him. His only consistent visitors were his grandparents, who came every Sunday until health issues prevented them from visiting him. After that, Daniel’s only visitors were his lawyers. Then, in 2014, Daniel’s parents asked to make a visitation together. They were each single again and practicing sobriety. This development gave Daniel hope, and by the time I met him, he was beginning to forgive his parents. Yes, they had failed him, but Daniel now saw his parents as people who had acted out of pain and unconsciousness.
As the final processes of Daniel’s case were drawing to a close, my husband and I went to visit the graves of Daniel’s victims. I stood before the gravestones and felt literally beside myself, as though one of me could not contain all the pain and sadness there was to hold. It was hard for my heart to accommodate the suffering of those who were killed, those who would be killed, and those who had survived to live with it.
Daniel had given me some words to say, but as I prepared to read them, I felt cut off, emotionally paralyzed. This was surely a futile gesture. Yet I knew that Daniel’s deep sorrow and remorse were real, and that the heavy burden of an interconnected reality had played out that day in April when the meaninglessness of his life spilled into the lives of others. I spoke Daniel’s words for him:
I am sorry. I practice and pray for you every day and keep you in my heart. I wish you peace. I wish for healing and for your forgiveness. I wish that when we meet again in future lives we will be healed so that we do not perpetuate harm to each other. May we bring only benefit to each other. I send you my love and my wish for your happiness. I wish you free from suffering.
Finally, after all legal appeals were denied, the date of execution was set. The last recourse was an appeal for clemency, which in Daniel’s case would be life in prison without parole. He was ambivalent about appealing. In one of his letters to me, Daniel wrote:
I have never given clemency much thought. I have lived most of my life in depression, having suicidal thoughts, and feeling like life wasn’t worth living. I haven’t felt that way in years, but I still can’t state positively that I want to live. I know that sounds bad. I don’t want to die either, but clemency presents some challenges. It would be like living in the hell realms for the rest of my life—where men beat, kill, and rape each other, steal, and use drugs. I wouldn’t have the freedom to practice dharma as I do now.
In addition to wondering about the prospect of a life in prison, there was another question that Daniel needed to grapple with: Did he deserve to have his life spared?
The buddhadharma is clear about this. All beings share the same innate buddhanature, the capacity to attain enlightenment. Nothing can change this. And although human beings are capable of and do unspeakable things, a person can wake up and change their outward manifestation to match the basic inner goodness that characterizes all human beings.
For most people this is hard to believe, and for Daniel it was especially hard. How can a murderer be basically good? To appreciate his worth he would need to look at who he presently was, including his values and his actions now. He would need to believe that his remorse and his resolve to live differently were all he could do, that these deep changes were powerful and were sufficient.
As his legal team continued pursuing clemency—they cared for Daniel too much to let go of the only thing that they could offer him—Daniel’s focus was elsewhere. To live his last remaining weeks and days working to save his life would, for him, be totally depressing. He considered preparing for his death to be the best use of his time, and he wanted to devote himself to his spiritual practice.How can a murderer be basically good? To appreciate his worth he would need to look at who he presently was, including his values and his actions now.
Winning his life for the purpose of benefiting others, however, was another matter—one that he was willing to work for. Daniel now understood himself to be someone who had something to offer other inmates consigned to a life of imprisonment, not necessarily as a Buddhist, but as a developed human being. He wanted to share the healing value of artistic expression. And he wanted to give the men on the clemency board an opportunity not to kill someone. Daniel insisted to his lawyers that he include in his hearing the fact that he was Buddhist, that he could not give an honest account of who he was without this acknowledgment. He was determined to do all he could to present himself as the good person he now believed himself to be, so that the board would know that if they voted to kill him, it was a good person they were killing.
The clemency hearing was a heartbreaking and intense proceeding.
Daniel’s father refused to wear the collared shirt bought for him by one of the team’s investigators; instead, he came as he typically dressed, in jeans and a T-shirt. But his long hair was in a ponytail, and he looked tidier than the disheveled-looking man I had first met when, at Daniel’s request, I met with his parents to get consent for his body to be cared for in a Buddhist manner and cremated.
His father moved exceedingly slowly to take his place at the podium. Bent over, he mostly stared at his hands as he spoke. He talked about the sweet child that Daniel had been. He did not elucidate the abuse and neglect that he and his second wife had visited upon Daniel, but he did say that he and Daniel’s mother were young high school dropouts when they had Daniel. He said he had not known how to be a parent or a spouse and, faced with responsibilities he could not rise to, he had abused drugs and alcohol. At the end of his testimony, Daniel’s father looked up at the panel of men and said: “Daniel can rightfully blame me for many things. But he never does. He never blames me.”
The board listened patiently, sometimes leaning back in their swivel chairs, facing the ceiling—maybe contemplating, maybe not. Their exchanges with Daniel’s mother and grandmother were kind, and they complimented the lawyers on their exceptional work. The only sticking point was Buddhism. I had prepared myself to speak about the influence Buddhism had on Daniel, and how his belief had changed his life. But I was unable to answer questions like why Daniel had chosen Buddhism rather than Christianity to the board’s satisfaction.
After three hours of this excruciating process, we drove to the prison and joined other friends and family who had gathered to spend what would possibly be Daniel’s last hours with him. He sat at the back of the visitation cell with three armed guards seated at the front. Another guard unlocked and relocked the heavy iron-bar doors separating the waiting room from the visitation cell. Five people were allowed in at a time, and Daniel coordinated the comings and goings of all of us. Those of us who had come from the clemency hearing recounted our experience to Daniel and the others. We could not help but feel hopeful; our task had been difficult, but we had done well.
I received the call at 7:30 p.m. Clemency had been denied.
The following day, the day of execution, everyone returned to see Daniel for the last time. We were there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., laughing and crying, and we even did some singing. We put baggies of quarters around for the vending machines, our source of food for the day. Daniel asked small groups of us to be with him off and on for short periods of time. He seemed to know that we would need many chances to see him, many chances to say what we needed to say, and many last experiences of him. Daniel let the fondest memories of his childhood be told and retold; he let his mother wail; he let his family feed him vending machine honey buns and Cheetos until he couldn’t eat any more. I wondered if he would have room for the pizza that he’d requested as his last meal.
At 3:00 it was over. Everyone had to leave. I was permitted to stay with Daniel a half hour longer for his “last rites.” It went by so quickly, and we were deep into our practice and stunned when the guards interrupted us to tell us that our time was up. My last image of Daniel is seeing him seated in a circle of empty chairs, silent and dignified, as the guards approached him, cuffed him, and took him away.
Daniel was allowed only two witnesses for his execution. One was his lawyer, Lisa, and the other was me. We returned to the prison at 6 p.m. and waited with our “handlers.” As the time went slowly by, fearful anticipation welled up in me every now and then. There would be footsteps down the hall or the phone in our room would ring. I felt jolted each time and then a letdown as I realized that people were just checking in on us. Just how long could you hold off the future? Somewhere an appeal for a stay was underway, but I knew it would be denied. I wondered how Daniel was doing.
The call comes at about 9 p.m. I tell Lisa that I need to pull inward, and I sit in meditation while she sits in prayer. I hear our handlers talking to each other and then they finally quiet down for us. Before much longer, footsteps approach. They have come to take us.
A death row counselor tells us the rules: There is to be no loud sobbing, no communication out loud, nor any motions made to the inmate. Anyone who makes noise or movements will be removed. Complete silence must be maintained.
She tells Lisa, “Daniel expects you to be upset.” And then she says directly, “Don’t.” She gives Lisa a firm gaze and hands her some napkins to take in with her. “You can be sad. You can cry. But it will make it easier for him if you don’t.”
The counselor turns to me, saying only, “He expects you not to be upset.” I understand.
It’s cloudy and drizzling. Armed guards stop our van at several checkpoints. Bright lights bounce off the barbed wire. I feel like I might throw up. The two of us are the last of the witnesses to be escorted into the execution hall, where three rows of pews face a curtained window. We sit behind the victims’ witnesses, family members, and maybe their trial attorneys. The press is next to and behind us, and the walls are lined with suited men at attention. The curtain is drawn to reveal Daniel strapped to a gurney that is tilted with his head upward so that everyone watching can see his entire body and face. His arms are strapped to boards at either side, and in each arm an IV has been placed for the lethal injection. He is wrapped in white sheeting. He is expressionless. I bow my head, hoping that he will see my slight gesture. I am afraid to bow to him more fully, because I do not want to be removed. Our eyes lock.
The warden announces the rules of silence and the rule of law about to be carried out. He turns and asks Daniel if he wants to say last words. We had discussed this, and Daniel had initially planned to say nothing. He wanted to be engaged in meditation practice for the entire time in order to be clear-minded as he died. When the time came, though, Daniel chose to speak. His words were recorded by a witness for the Department of Corrections and appeared in some press accounts:
If the family of Mrs. ___ is present,
I want you to know how sorry
I am for all of the pain that I
caused you and your loved ones.
I want to say to my family, I am
sorry for the pain that I have
caused you. I love you.
I would like to say a short Buddhist prayer:
All beings are basically good.
All beings are basically wise.
All beings are basically kind.
All beings are basically strong.
The chaplain delivered a brief prayer and then stepped away. The warden quickly came forward and made a scripted announcement that sounded mostly like numbers referring to the law about to be carried out. And then, just as quickly, the warden was gone. I realized that the actual killing was beginning. I forced my mouth to move in an exaggerated way, hoping that Daniel would see this as I silently uttered the mantra that he and I agreed we would both be saying, Om Vajrasattva . . . , a prayer that acknowledges wrongdoings and asks for forgiveness and love.
Our eyes were still locked. His lips began moving. His eyes closed, opened, then closed for the last time. His lips stopped moving. Long minutes passed, and then two men in white coats entered and positioned themselves on either side of Daniel. They placed stethoscopes on his chest, lifted his eyelids, then nodded to each other and walked away. The warden stepped back onto the scene and made an announcement: Daniel Lucas died at 9:54 p.m. The curtain closed.
A light rain fell as we were all led back to our respective vans. Lisa and I were silent as we were driven to the prison entrance, where vigils had been going on. It was raining more heavily now. At the gate our group waited, holding umbrellas out for us.
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