For Jews, starry night belies execution inside San Quentin

Amid a sea of white wooden crosses and anti-death penalty picket signs, a crowd of both Jews and non-Jews braved the cold this week to stand vigil at San Quentin State Prison.

Among them was Jessica Haskell, a member of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar. She held her mitten-covered hands to her mouth, her breath piercing the crisp winter air like dense San Francisco fog.

The subtle onset of grief appeared to overpower the 18-year-old as she lingered close to her friends and her rabbi, Lavey Derby, awaiting the imminent Tuesday morning execution of convicted murderer Stephen Wayne Anderson.

"I've always believed the death penalty was wrong," said Haskell. "You can't justify killing with killing."

Because this was the first death-penalty vigil Haskell ever attended, the teen struggled for words. She admitted she was a bit overwhelmed by the gathering of more than 200, which attracted droves of Jews, Christians, Quakers and Buddhists as well as war veterans, America Civil Liberties Union supporters and those from many other walks of life.

Originally clustered into their individual groups for prayer sessions, chants, candlelightings and incense burnings, the growing number of demonstrators eventually blurred the boundaries, forming a unified crowd. "There are so many people here," Haskell remarked, "who wouldn't normally come together."

And Haskell's desire to "express my convictions" and "stick up for something I believe in" overpowered all other physical considerations.

"I would have come," she insisted, "even if it was raining."

It didn't rain, but clouds swept in surrounding the full moon with a luminous, rust-colored ring. Underneath the otherwise starry sky, a sign bearing a blue Star of David with a word of the Sh'ma on each point and a quote from Anne Frank in the middle, found a place above the crowd's heads.

The sign's maker, Ken Kramarz, the executive director of Camp Tawonga, explained that he sees San Quentin from the Larkspur ferry on his commute to work every day. Realizing this "is the one and only place we execute people in California," he felt compelled "as a Jew as well as a citizen" to protest.

"There is no good reason for capital punishment. It's inhumane, unconstitutional, un-American and unequally applied with regard to race and social class," he said, as the smell of incense intermingling with cigarette smoke and burning candles wafted through the air.

"I am very clear that Judaism does not permit this type of execution."

Anderson, 48, was convicted in 1981 of killing an 81-year-old woman, Elizabeth Lyman, during a robbery of her home in San Bernadino County. While on death row he developed himself as a proficient writer and poet and, in a press statement issued by his attorneys upon his death at 12:32 a.m. Tuesday, was referred to as "the poet laureate of the condemned."

The attorneys had unsuccessfully attempted to have the sentence commuted to life, thus making Anderson the 10th person to be executed in California since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1992.

But even "knowing what he made of his life" while in prison doesn't matter, said Derby. With only a kippah to keep his head warm, the rabbi explained that although the Talmud does not take a crystal clear stance on the death penalty, in Judaism "the taking of life is heinous. Are we as a society prepared to say we know best and take" a prisoner's life?

"Only God can be absolutely sure. Only God can see into the soul."

Rabbi Bernie Robinson, a Kol Shofar member, agreed that the protest was not based on "the particular person being executed" but the execution itself.

"In fact, three days ago, I knew absolutely nothing about [Anderson]," he said. "The basis of my commitment to this cause is simply one of the sanctity of human life. This killing, in the name of California, is not in my name."

As the moment of Anderson's execution grew closer, a brisk wind picked up, causing the flames of the candles to flicker more rapidly. That, and the flashing of photojournalists' cameras, intermittently lit up the faces of the crowd, many of which were covered in tears, others stony with resigned acceptance.

The audible sound of sobbing rose above the sound of the songs, words and drumbeat of those who addressed the crowd throughout the vigil at a sole microphone near the prison gates.

"Part of the time I feel emotional. And frankly, part of the time I feel disassociated," said Derby, who chose not to address the crowd. "There's all these people crushed together; then suddenly there will be silence, and then we'll all go home. It's weird."

All this while, he added, "there is a man inside facing the ultimate moment."

Rabbi Dorothy Richman of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom found herself transfixed by the "incredible, almost spooky gorgeousness of the clouds and the water" offsetting the protest site.

With a look of suffering and disillusionment she admitted, "I don't really know how to reconcile the beauty of this place with the ugliness of what's going on in the prison."