Feature News Story
By Mark Wingfield
WACO, Texas (ABP)--Research for his best-selling book "The Chamber" changed John Grisham's opinion on the death penalty, he told a Baylor University audience the morning after Texas executed its ninth inmate this year.
Grisham made a rare public speech to a capacity crowd in Baylor's Waco Hall Feb. 25 as part of an international conference on writing and spirituality called "Art and Soul." He spoke just hours after the execution of Betty Beets.
In preparation for writing the novel, Grisham made frequent visits to death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. He got to know the guards, the inmates and the stories of some of the convicted killers' victims, he said.
He even let guards strap him in the death-chamber gurney to get the feel of what it's like to be there.
During one of those death-chamber visits--a night visit not normally allowed--just he and a lone guard stood inside the tiny, antiseptic room.
"I read somewhere that you're a Christian," the guard said.
"Yes, I am," replied Grisham, a lifelong Southern Baptist and active layman.
"Do you think Jesus would approve of what we do here?" the guard asked.
The answer Grisham gave, he said, was different than what he would have said before he started visiting death row. And it was different from what he had learned growing up in the Baptist church.
"No," Grisham said. "I don't think that's what Jesus taught."
Then the guard had another question, one Grisham said he never was asked before and never has been asked since.
"Well, then," the guard said, "who do you believe in--Jesus or the state of Mississippi?"
Grisham told the Baylor audience he now struggles with conflicted emotions on the death penalty. On one hand, he doesn't believe killing other humans is what Jesus taught, he said. "But at the same time, with every execution there's a sense that justice has been done, and I can't escape it."
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