SAN DIEGO — The biblical Book of Sirach says, “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure.”
Kent Peters, director of the diocesan Office for Social Ministry, would agree: He clearly treasures his friend Jim. Over the course of seven years, Peters said, the two have developed “a closeness and an intimacy ... that is rare among friendships.”
There have been lighthearted games of gin rummy and Scrabble, as well as hours of deep conversation about their lives and families, their struggles and their faith in God.
“I know him probably better than anyone alive [does],” Peters said.
But the depth of their friendship will make it all the more difficult when the time comes for Jim to be killed.
For about 15 years, “Jim” (not his actual name) has been sitting on death row at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, Calif., awaiting execution for a murder he does not deny committing. Peters said Jim will likely be executed within the next 10 years and possibly as soon as two years from now.
The two men began corresponding as part of a project sponsored by the local chapter of California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty. In 2001 and 2002, Peters was one of about 15 people from the San Diego area who took part in the project and started writing letters to an inmate on California’s death row.
The intention, Peters said, was to give a face to the condemned prisoners and to share their stories with a society that considers them “monsters.” Though his friendship with Jim began for these “somewhat utilitarian reasons,” he said, “what’s really happened is we’ve become gifts to each other.”
Over the years, Peters has exchanged hundreds of letters with the man he refers to as “my condemned friend.” He said he currently receives a letter from Jim every month and writes a letter of his own every two or three months. In his letters, he has told Jim about his wife and children so often that the inmate now has “a vicarious sense of being part of a family.”
On a few occasions, Peters has also visited the prison, including once with his teenage daughter. His most recent visit took place Nov. 7 and 8.
The friendship is mutually beneficial, said Peters, who regrets that he is sometimes so preoccupied at work and at home “that I have not been the friend to him that he has been to me.”
As head of the diocese’s Social Ministry Office, Peters often speaks about the death penalty, sometimes using details from his correspondence “to make the people on death row human again, take them out of the ‘monster’ category, into living human beings with histories and maybe circumstances that make them less of a monster.”
In the case of his “condemned friend,” Peters said, these circumstances include a long history of abuse, which dates back to early childhood and left Jim with “distortions in his personality” and a deep-seated belief that God hates him.
“When someone has experienced that much trauma, they need to be reminded over and over again [about who God really is],” said Peters, “and my life’s goal will be to be that reminder of God’s love right up to [his death].”
Peters has told Jim that the abuse the inmate suffered as a child played a large role in landing him on death row. But this is not an excuse for his terrible crime, said Peters, who would not advocate for his friend’s release.
“No, we need to be protected from Jim because of who he became,” he said, adding that Jim himself agrees with that assessment.
However, despite Jim’s crime and inability to be reintegrated into society, Peters is passionately opposed to the death penalty.
While admitting that the Catholic Church has never issued “an absolute prohibition” against capital punishment, he said the Church teaches that executions should be a last resort, used only when society cannot adequately protect itself through non-lethal means. He added that he shares the “prudential judgment” of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and “a vast majority of Catholic prelates,” who believe that the current criminal justice system, with such penalties as life imprisonment, makes the majority of executions unnecessary.
“This death-row inmate has been absolutely humanized in my mind,” Peters said of his friend Jim, “and when he is executed, I will understand the fact that we didn’t need to do that, for many, many reasons.”
For more information about writing to death-row inmates or local efforts to advance alternatives to the death penalty, call the diocesan Office for Social Ministry at (858) 490-8323.