Up Front and Personal

Mercy Tempers Justice In Death Penalty Case

 by Sister Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M.

Two weeks after attending the trial of David Paul Hammer in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania, I asked his attorney, Ron Travis, what, if anything, we could do as we awaited the verdict – death, or life in prison without parole – from Judge Joel Slomsky.

“There is nothing anyone can do,” he replied.

Except, as we well know, for prayer.

On July 17, 2014, the day before the feast of my patron, St. Camillus de Lellis, Judge Slomsky announced his verdict: life in prison without parole.

Or, to put it another way, David has been given the gift of time to work out his salvation – to continue helping others in prison and outside its walls. And so very many of us are grateful.

David’s attorney had invited four of us Sisters of Mercy from Brooklyn to testify in David’s behalf: Sisters Kay Crumlish, executive director of Mercy Home; Breige Lavery, executive director of the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center; Karen Schneider, pediatrician with Johns Hopkins, who brings health care to children in impoverished areas of the world; and me, a long-time spiritual guide for David Hammer. Much of our testimony described the good that’s been accomplished from money raised from the sale of Christmas cards designed by David and another inmate and marketed by this writer.

Throughout the month of June, Judge Slomsky has been hearing the case in a courtroom on the nearby District Court’s 15th floor. In the absence of a jury, it fell to this judge to decide the fate of Hammer, who is undergoing a retrial for the murder he committed (allegedly by accident) in a Pennsylvania prison 18 years ago. The judge could have reimposed the death sentence that had been vacated by a different judge nine years ago or assign him life without parole.

The prosecution, of course, is trying to show the worst of Hammer; the defense is attempting to demonstrate the positive changes in his character and behavior. Much of the evidence centered on Christmas cards, supplied by Hammer since the year 2000, and marketed by this writer. All proceeds – many thousands of dollars – have gone to help children in need and at risk.

These three were interviewed for only a few minutes each. I, on the other hand, was on the stand for a total of three hours over two days. Throughout, the prosecutor limited her assessment of the defendant to his behavior before 2004. She made no reference to the positive aspects of his life since then. At times, she seemed to be grasping at straws. For example, she implied that his Confirmation as a Catholic was useless because of negative choices he has engaged in since then, October, 2000. My reply was that no sacrament assures the recipient of future flawless behavior.

“Do you think the testimony of four Sisters of Mercy from Brooklyn influenced the judge?” someone asked.

We don’t know. We are sure, however, that it didn’t hurt. It wouldn’t be the first time Mercy has seasoned Justice.