'Til death do they stop

BROWNING - Six days before her 80th birthday, Clare Sinclair crosses the parking lot of the Teepee Village Shopping Center to ask three Blackfeet Indian men what they think about the death penalty.

The men are on horseback - friends out for a late-afternoon ride around Browning. Sinclair - a slightly built, white-haired woman from Missoula - is on foot.

"My friend Eve and I are traveling across the state of Montana, stopping in 42 small towns and on all seven Indian reservations, talking about the death penalty and living in that sheep wagon," she says, motioning back across the parking lot.

The men lean forward in their saddles and nod. Sinclair continues.

"We are part of a group of people who would like to abolish the death penalty in our state," she says. "Would you like to sign our resolution?"

The youngest of the men reaches down to accept her offer of a clipboard, and signs his name while Sinclair asks his companions about the summer's lineup of rodeos, parades and powwows. In turn, each man signs his name below the declaration: "We the undersigned believe the death penalty should be abolished."

The men don't say why they sign. Sinclair does not ask. Moments later, they are gone, trotting down a side street to avoid the 5 o'clock busyness on Browning's three-block commercial strip.

Alone on the edge of the parking lot, Sinclair talks about the journey she and 71-year-old Eve Malo began six weeks ago in Deer Lodge and will complete on Thursday in Helena.

"In the Quaker tradition, women have always gone out to tell the truth as they see it," Sinclair says.

So she and Malo drive from town to town - last week to Conrad, Choteau, Cut Bank, Browning, Whitefish and Libby - and visit senior citizen centers, schools and churches, talking to anyone who will listen. At supper time, they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at roadside parks. At night, they sleep in an aluminum-sided sheepherder's wagon pulled behind their pickup truck.

They ask for signatures of support, but they don't push. They tell why they believe capital punishment is wrong - why it's racist, immoral and inefficient - but they don't preach. They listen to arguments by death penalty proponents, but they don't debate.

"There's no use riling people up," Sinclair says.

One night more than 60 years ago, Eve Malo's uncle killed her grandmother. He was 17 years old. He was angry. He picked up a bookend and threw it at his mother and killed her, and was sentenced to the Michigan state penitentiary.

Then something amazing happened.

"My great-aunt forgave him," Malo said. "And every month for years and years, she took public transportation to the prison to visit him. And when he got out, he had the love and support of his family. They found him a good job. He got married. He had a family."

His niece, who was just starting grammar school at the time of the murder, learned about the crime and her family's forgiveness as she grew older. She heard the story first from her mother, then from her uncle. She looked around her family, and saw that it was true. And she promised never to doubt the power of forgiveness.

About 2 1/2 years ago, as a volunteer for Amnesty International, Malo started visiting one of the six men on Death Row at the Montana State Prison. He writes two or three times a week. She sends a book once a month. Sometimes, she drives to Deer Lodge from her home in Dillon and visits.

Malo won't tell the man's name or the particulars of his crime. But he does want to ask for forgiveness, she says. He's sorry for the sadness he has caused others.

"I am literally watching his intellectual and emotional growth each week," she says. "He is reforming. He wants redemption."

"We all come into this life with such great potential," says Sinclair, a Quaker and a pacifist. "We are not put on this earth to destroy each other, but to care for each other."

"There are all sorts of facts about the death penalty and why it doesn't work," she says. "The average murder rate per 100,000 people in the United States is about 8 percent in states with capital punishment, but only 5 percent in states that do not execute people. Montana has one-third more violent crimes than North Dakota, where there is no death penalty. Sixty-seven percent of police officers do not think capital punishment decreases the murder rate.

"But all the facts in the world don't make something right or wrong. I'm not doing this because of a statistic or a number. I'm doing this because I believe in the goodness of human beings."

Malo and Sinclair knew their message would be challenged when they arrived in Browning last week. One of the six men on Montana's Death Row - Ronald A. Smith - is there because he murdered two men from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Smith and two companions were hitchhiking on Marias Pass one night in August 1982 when two young Blackfeet offered them a ride. Smith pulled out a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and marched them into the woods.

Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., 20, and Harvey Mad Man Jr., 23, were shot to death, execution-style - on their knees, with their hands tied behind their backs. Smith, a white man, later said he wanted "to find out what it would be like to kill somebody."

He pleaded guilty in April 1983 and asked to be executed. A year later, he changed his mind and asked a judge to throw out the death sentence. Over the years, through multiple appeals, Smith has been sentenced to die three times.

But he has not yet been executed, and people in Browning have not forgotten what he did.

Anna Malo copies the words off her grandmother's T-shirt and onto the blackboard: "RACIST, NOT A DETERRENT, TARGETS THE POOR, COSTS MORE THAN A LIFE SENTENCE, DOES NOT RESTORE VICTIMS, KILLS INNOCENT PEOPLE, TEACHES VIOLENCE, A HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE."

Malo and Sinclair are scheduled to speak at noon in a tribal history class at Blackfeet Community College, their first public appearance in Browning. Ronald Smith's case is on their minds.

So Malo asks the students - three women and three men - how their community has been affected by the death penalty - and by Smith's conviction and sentence. The instructor, Marvin Weatherwax, is the first to answer.

"Many people here say, 'We don't want the death penalty for Ron Smith. Just set him free in the middle of the reservation,' " Weatherwax tells the women. Heads nod.

"In the past, our people never directly took the life of someone because of something they did," he says. "Usually, they were taken out somewhere and staked, and the animals and insects took care of them. I think a lot of people would prefer the death penalty to having berry juice poured on them in an ant pile."

Sinclair tells the class her family's story and all the reasons - the phrases printed on the bulletin board - why she opposes capital punishment. She talks about racism, how Indians are disproportionately represented on Montana's Death Row, as are non-whites nationwide. She talks about poverty, and how it leads to anger and despair and violence.

On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the poverty rate is 86 percent.

By the time they're in jail or, worse, on Death Row, society has given up on offenders, Malo says. "Rehabilitation is non-existent for people on Death Row. People say, 'We don't want to rehabilitate someone who should be kept away from the rest of society.' And inmates say, 'I'm not sure I could live outside prison. I'm not sure I would want to be released.' "

"They don't know any other way to live," says Craig Iron Pipe, one of the students. "Being in jail is like being an alcoholic. A guy is 40 years old and has to go all the way back to when he was 8 years old to start over."

As Iron Pipe speaks, Flora Running Crane walks into the classroom, pulls a chair from behind a table in the back of the room and places it smack in the center aisle. And sits.

Malo continues her presentation, explaining why she believes the death penalty is "the tip of the iceberg of all our other problems: economic, educational, social. If we can bring attention to the death penalty, then we can have a dialogue about all these other things."

Running Crane waits her turn, then begins to speak - about going back to school at age 73, about the white man who taunted her family during a shopping trip to Great Falls recently ("Go back to China. There's a boat leaving."), about parents and children and the need for discipline in the home, about the harsh punishment Blackfeet people traditionally inflicted on wrongdoers, and finally about her nephews - Thomas Running Rabbit and Harvey Mad Man.

"The man who killed my nephews," she says. "He is still living, and my nephews are gone. They will never come back."

"You want revenge," Malo replies. "But revenge doesn't bring closure. It doesn't heal."

"I don't want revenge," Running Crane says. "I want the white man to abide by his own law. I want Ron Smith to be punished for what he did.

"He tied their hands back. He made the boys kneel. A lot of people went up there to see what had happened."

A white man killed two Indian boys and was sentenced to die, Running Crane says. But the sentence has not been carried out, and people on the reservation think it's because the killer was white and the victims were Indians.

"Excuse me, but that man who killed my nephews, it was very bad how he killed those boys."

Clare Sinclair's children were worried when they heard about her plan to travel across Montana, living in a sheepherder's wagon and talking about her opposition to the death penalty.

She discounts their fears, but still calls them each evening. The trip is important, she says, and the best way she can imagine to spend her 80th birthday.

"All my life, I have done what I could to work for peace and reconciliation," she says. As a college student, she spoke out against American involvement in World War II. In 1975, she went to the Gaza Strip to teach children in the refugee camps. Later, she taught in Africa, then at Mountain View School for Girls in Helena.

"The past few years, I've been looking again for a focus in my life," Sinclair says. "Last year, I went to a meeting of the Montana Abolition Coalition and met Eve and realized that this might be my new focus."

The women's tour - christened "Lighting the Torch of Conscience" by Amnesty International and the Montana Quakers, its sponsors - has been a challenge for Sinclair. It's never easy to approach strangers, even more so when you want to talk about something as emotional as the death penalty.

Of course, Sinclair and Malo rarely have to approach people. Their sheepherder's wagon and decorated truck attract attention as soon as they pull into a town. As they drive around Browning in search of a lunch counter, the women draw glares from some passersby - and one man who makes a U-turn to follow them and complain that they shouldn't be allowed on the reservation.

When they stop to mail letters at the post office, Shawn White Grass bounds across the parking lot. "I saw you ladies on TV, and I said, 'I want to meet them.' "

The sheepherder's wagon tickles White Grass - that anyone would choose to live in one. But the issue - the death penalty - is close to his heart.

"In God's law, you're not supposed to kill anybody," he tells the women, fingering a cross hanging from a chain on his ring finger. "God will judge us all in the end."

White Grass signs the women's resolution, as does his wife, who is a guard at the youth detention center in Browning. The women thank the young couple, then continue on their afternoon rounds - to the senior citizen center (empty except for one man), to the grocery store, to visit a friend who works with troubled children, to the public library (just as the librarian closes up shop for the day), to a street corner (where a woman tells them about her sadness at her brother's arrest and imprisonment).

By January, Malo says, she hopes to have a few thousand signatures to present to state legislators - "so they will know that there are Montanans who oppose the death penalty."

It does not matter, Sinclair says, if she has but four signatures from Cut Bank or a dozen from Browning. What matters is the discussion - meeting the horseback riders in the Teepee Village parking lot, hearing Flora Running Crane talk about her nephews.

"This past month has intensified my belief in the goodness of humankind," Sinclair says. "People are often opposed to what we say, but they are still so gracious and even loving at times."

"I have to follow what feels right to me," she says. "I don't feel adamant about right and wrong. I just have to be true to what I believe - that life is precious, that every human being has potential, that every life can have meaning, that our job in this world is to love one another.

"I have learned to trust my gentleness. I have learned to trust who I am."

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