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HUNTSVILLE, TX: Yokamon Hearn Surrounded by Prayer as he is Executed

HUNTSVILLE, TX: Yokamon Hearn Surrounded by Prayer as he is Executed
Wednesday at 6:37 p.m. his soul returned to God

By Mary Ann Mueller
Special Correspondent
July 18, 2012

At 5:30 p.m. the temperature was 97F. There were few clouds in the azure sky as a deep quiet settled on the six souls gathered at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church to do something that has been done 338 times before, praying for an inmate who was facing lethal death in less than an hour.

For the second time, Yokanom Hearn was a mere two and a half miles away from the Episcopal Church as he was being prepared by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to meet his death at the hands of the State of Texas. The first time St. Stephen's prayed for Hearn was on March 4, 2004. That time, through some last minute legal maneuvering and only 15 minutes before his execution was to be carried out in the Texas Death Chamber at The Walls Unit, Hearn received a last minute reprieve because it was thought that the then 25-year-old was incapable of understanding the reason for his impending death. His July 18 execution was rescheduled last January.

On March 26, 1998 Hearn broke the Sixth Commandment, Thou Shalt Do No Murder; and Eighth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Steal, when he and three of his companions came upon Frank Meziere, who was washing his 1994 Mustang at an upscale North Dallas car wash. The 23-year-old Plano stockbroker was shot multiple times by Hearn before his car was stolen. Hearn bragged about his part in the late night capital murder and carjacking.

"Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known and from You no secrets are hid," prayed the Rev. James Morgan, St. Stephen's rector, breaking the quiet as he began the 339th Execution Day Liturgy and, for the second time, he and his congregants gathered to pray for Hearn's soul.

The Execution Day Service is like a short compline - the final liturgical service of the day. This would be Hearn's final prayer service - a chance to prayerfully present the condemned prisoner to God, just minutes before his soul would leave his body and be returned to God: the Creator who formed him in the secret of his mother's womb, and first breathed into him the breath of life on Nov. 6, 1978.

"Oh God, You have bound us together in a common life," Fr. Morgan continued. "Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness ..."

The lessons appointed for Hearn's compline-style Execution Day Service were: Isaiah 65:8-12; John 14:1-4; and Romans 5:12-15. Long silence followed the readings.

St. Stephen's was first established during Reconstruction. The Episcopal Church has now been spiritually serving the Huntsville community for more than 125 years. It is located at 5019 Sam Houston Avenue. The edifice is set off from the main thoroughfare cutting down street noise filtering into the sanctuary. Wednesday, the church's altar multi-green hanging and lectern draping blended well with the soft cream and deep gold walls. A massive simple Celtic cross hung suspended in front of the arched picture window behind the altar. The window looks out on a sweet gum tree that changes with the seasons. On this mid-July day, the blueness of the sky could be seen peaking through the fullness of the rich summer-green leaves fluttering in a light breeze, giving the altar a type of living earthy out-of-doors reredos.

Huntsville's claim to fame is that it is the final hometown of Sam Houston, the famed president of the mid-19th Century Republic of Texas. The local university bears his name as well as being a major employer. The other key presence in this East Texas Piney Woods community is TDCJ. A network of seven smaller prisons units, of which The Walls Unit is the hub, permeates the small municipality, giving the community a "Prison City" mentality and feel.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the only state agency that is not home based in Austin. The 97-unit Texas prison system has been headquartered in Huntsville since the 1849 erection of The Walls Unit. More than 1,600 inmates are currently housed at The Walls Unit including murders, rapists, and kidnappers. Some Wall Unit inmates have life sentences for their crimes. Other TDCJ inmates have death sentences and come to The Walls Unit with their date in the Texas Death Chamber. The Texas Death Row is located at the Polunsky Unit in West Livingston, about 60 miles from The Walls.

The Walls Unit, where Hearn breathed his last, is on the corner of Avenue I and 12th Street. It is a short three blocks from Sam Houston's grave in Oakwood Cemetery on Avenue I and 9th Street.

Prison guards are a very familiar sight throughout the community. Dressed in their steel grey uniforms, the correctional officers can be seen in all the local churches, stores, schools, parks, public buildings and anywhere else people gather.

Historically, The Walls Unit predates the Civil War. It was first opened Oct. 1, 1849 as the Texas State Penitentiary; it now houses the state's death chamber. Texas has used various methods of execution since 1819. Through the years, executions have been carried out by hanging, firing squad, electric chair, and by lethal injection for murder, horse thieving, cattle rustling, piracy, treason, rape, and military desertion (during the War Between the States). Since the 1924 advent of the electric chair, all executions have taken place at The Walls. The list of capital crimes has been reduced to various kinds of murder.

Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Hearn became the 483rd Texas inmate to die at The Walls through lethal injection and the 1,234th Texas prisoner to lose his life for his sins. On the date of their execution, St. Stephen's has prayed for every condemned prisoner since February 3, 1998, when Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman to be executed in the United States since1983. Prior to then, the last female death row inmate to be executed in Texas occurred in 1863.

Outside the enclosed deep red brick Texas penitentiary, a couple dozen demonstrators gather in the late afternoon heat. Some carry signs or are wearing shirts displaying their anti-death stance or pro-death messages unaware that an on-going ministry of dedicated and committed prayer is being conducted on the edge of town.

Back at St. Stephen's, Fr. Morgan launches an extemporaneous prayer as a prelude to the Confiteor which leads into the Litany for an Execution. Each prayerful petition is followed by measured silence before a response is uttered.

"We pray for God's justice, mercy, and grace ... Lord, hear our prayer."

"For our bother Yokanom Hearn for his sincere contrition and his confidence in Jesus Christ ... Lord, have mercy."

For his family, in their sorrow ... Lord, have mercy."

"For his victim, Frank Meziere, that he has eternal peace ... Lord, have mercy."

"For his family, that they experience healing and find forgiving hearts ... Lord, hear our prayer."

Throughout the Execution Day Litany, St. Stephen's congregants pray for the soul of the prisoner, much in keeping with their First Century patron, the Deacon Stephen, who prayed for the souls of his executioners and implored that the sin of his stoning be not held against them. Saul of Tarsus quietly watched while holding the executioners' cloaks.

"For the Correctional Officers who guard and prepare him that they be led to perform their duties with compassion ... Lord, hear our prayer."

"For the chaplains who guide and comfort him that You comfort them ... Lord, hear our prayer."

"For the wardens and officials who oversee his punishment ... Lord, hear our prayer."

In the same way the dedicated Huntsville Episcopal church parishioners pray not only for the soul of the condemned prisoner as his life drains out, they also - in keeping with St. Stephen - pray for the soul of the prison, the soul of Huntsville, and the soul of the State of Texas.

"For the Board of Pardon and Parole, and for the Governor, in all their deliberations ... Let loving justice be in their hearts."

For the executioners who represent us ... Give them peace."

For the people of the State of Texas, who carry out this sentence ... Show us the way to justice and mercy."

For the people of Huntsville, that we remain distressed and avoid complacency ... Lord, hear out prayer." For all those awaiting execution, that they find forgiveness for their sins and true faith in Your compassion ... Lord, hear our prayer."

For those who have been executed. May their souls rest in peace ... Lord, hear our prayer."

"Lord Jesus Christ, in this dark night, we know that You are with us in our distress," Fr. Morgan continues. "...Guide us to true justice, help us to move away from anger and retribution, and remind us that whatsoever we do to the lease of these out brothers and sisters, we do to You - our Brother Who endured the last necessary execution ..."

Following another collect and benediction, Hearn's Execution Day Service is over. His soul is committed to God as he (body) goes to its execution. In less than an hour, Hearn will be in the very presence of God, his life on this earth ended.

St. Stephen's Service of Liturgy on the Day of an Execution had its beginning as an Education for Ministry (EFM) project. For nine months, St. Stephen's EFM students labored to develop a meaningful way to surround the TDCJ prisoner with prayer on their date with death. When the liturgy was finally developed, it was sent to Bishop Claude Payne then the VII Bishop of Texas for his approval. The first time the liturgy was used was when Karla Faye Tucker met her death on Feb. 3, 1998. Since then, St. Stephen's has gathered in prayer at 5:30 p.m. on each Execution Day. Sometimes those executions have been halted by last minute stays, as in the case with Hearn on March 4, 2004.

Even though the prayer service at St. Stephen's has ended, the preparations at The Walls continue. A small throng of protesters gathers amid several smaller groups all watched over by a cluster of six TDCJ guards, and other law enforcement officials while a prison guard, high up in the observation tower, observes all. The entrance to The Walls Unit is blocked. The demonstration is peaceful. Birds singing, crickets chirping and frogs crocking are heard as the sun dips lower in the western sky.

Death comes to Yokanom Hearn at 6:37 p.m. In a few minutes, protestors surge forward as the witnesses and media exit The Walls, signaling the end has come.

As the crowd dissipates, a woman's high-pitched wail is heard while an inconsolable weeping pierces the early evening stillness. Death has come to Yokanom Hearn. St. Stephen's meets it in focused prayer. A woman - perhaps a friend, a family member, or an execution witness - meets it with tears.

On Aug. 1, the committed St. Stephen's Execution Day prayer warriors will again gather as another TDCJ inmate faces his death. This time it is Marcus Druery, one of 297 inmates left on the Texas Death Row, who is scheduled to meet his Maker.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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