John T. Thorngren, author of Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story, writes about the experiences that caused him to change his thinking about capital punishment and undertake the process of telling the true story of life on Death Row in Texas.
Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty
Although we may be merciful and compassionate in our hearts, there are instances to which we are ignorant—and therefore merciless by omission.
As an example, consider the sufferings of the inhabitants in Country X, of which we have no knowledge. We might have an inkling of their existence but no details on their plight nor means to help them. But closer to home, there are instances to which we are merciless by indifference, such as abortion or the death penalty. Indifference, in these cases, refers to those who have little or no concern about taking another’s life under special circumstances. Such special circumstances are ordained by the state and therefore not in their realm of interests.
And End to Indifference
Is omission worse than indifference? Is abortion worse than the death penalty? These are personal questions best answered by one’s direct experience. My indifference to the death penalty changed in a remarkable incident. When we moved to Shady Shores, Texas, I met a young man headed into the woods behind our house. I commented on his cap that had a cross on it and learned he volunteered to help the homeless in Denton, seven miles from us. He and his wife were renting a small mobile home nearby. Some years later they moved, and we kept up through Christmas cards and e-mail.
One day I received an e-mail from his then-ex-wife that “Jerry” was due for execution in another state for multiple homicides. How could this be? How could a professed Christian commit murder? I later learned that it was not Jerry, per se, but Jerry in an altered state under the influence of drugs. Jerry received a stay of execution while his appeals ground through the slow legal process, the limbo between life and death. They are ongoing. Jerry and I agreed to write his painful story in hopes that it might help others, but shortly into this effort, he realized that such information might endanger his appeals, so we placed the project on hold.
Feeling Called to Act
Still, I felt I needed to do something on behalf of all of those on Death Row, for we all have a purpose for our lives and the state should not take a life in revenge. Starting with a fictional heroine, condemned to lethal injection, I would create the great American novel about the injustice of the death penalty. But I needed some authentic background on the actual process. By divine chance, I found an old pen-pal request from Pamela Perillo, who had been on Texas Death Row and was still incarcerated at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
To that point, Pam had refused authors wanting to write her biography because they seemed transfixed on the sensational aspects of her life. But she and I discovered that we had a Christian match and a mutual purpose for sharing her story: to release but one person from the chains of drug addiction and subsequent imprisonment. Thus began our seven-year effort to create Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story.
And thus began my walk as a Christian—as a human—no longer mercilessly indifferent to the wrongs of the death penalty.
John T. Thorngren, a Texas writer and graduate of the University of Texas, has enjoyed a myriad of life experiences, working everywhere from basements to boardrooms. He is a songwriter published in Southern Gospel and an author of several patents, technical articles, and a nonfiction book on probability and statistics, in addition to Salvation on Death Row. John and his wife of more than five decades live in Shady Shores, Texas, on Lake Lewisville, where their livestock freely roam the grounds.