An Atheist Chaplain and a Death Row Inmate’s Final Hours

An Atheist Chaplain and a Death Row Inmate’s Final Hours

“God, that rooster.” Devin Moss has a voice that rumbles, low and gradual like distant thunder, however this morning it was softer, extra contemplative. His fingers gripped the steering wheel of his rental automotive. He was dressed head to toe in white linen, his physique glowing in an nearly celestial method, as he drove towards the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Moss, a chaplain, had spent the yr working because the religious adviser to Phillip Hancock, a loss of life row inmate in Oklahoma. The morning of the November execution had arrived. The jail had introduced Hancock the flawed final meal the evening earlier than, chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken as a substitute of darkish.

“That rooster, I do know,” echoed Sue Hosch, an anti-death penalty activist seated within the passenger seat beside Moss. “I couldn’t consider it.”

Hancock, convicted of two murders he dedicated in 2001, was scheduled to be executed at 10 a.m. With three hours to go, his attorneys have been nonetheless hoping that Oklahoma’s governor would grant him clemency, because the state parole board had voted to advocate three weeks earlier.

State attorneys and relations of the victims had continued to push for Hancock’s execution. State officers had reminded the parole board that one of many victims was solely 38 when he died, and was of “nice help” to his mother and father. The loss of life of the opposite sufferer, they mentioned, deeply affected his youthful brother, who couldn’t sleep after the loss.

Moss was driving to the jail to be with Hancock. After greater than 100 conversations, their relationship — loss of life row inmate and the person charged with caring for his soul — had come right down to this morning.

Moss considered the outrage Hancock had shared with him. “The good Christians are going to strap me to a crucifix and put a nail in my vein?” Hancock had requested. “Do they actually suppose that their God approves of them?”

Moss additionally considered Hancock’s alternately plaintive, generally witty quips. When Moss requested, “How are you?” Hancock answered, “I’m nonetheless right here.”

The grey Oklahoma skies opened right into a drizzle. Moss puzzled what he needed to provide Hancock in these ultimate hours, when unusual knowledge appeared to fail and prayers, on this case, have been irrelevant. Heaven, hell, salvation: He had talked about all of it with Hancock, however neither of them actually believed in something however folks. What people have been able to doing, for themselves and to at least one one other. Both males have been atheists.

There is an adage that claims there are not any atheists in foxholes — even skeptics will pray when dealing with loss of life. But Hancock, within the time main as much as his execution, solely grew to become extra insistent about his nonbelief. He and his chaplain have been each assured that there was no God who would possibly grant last-minute salvation, if solely they produced a determined prayer. They had just one one other.

The two spoke a minimum of as soon as per week, and generally a number of instances a day. Mostly, they talked over the telephone, and supplied recordings of those conversations to The Times. Sometimes it was in particular person, within the jail’s fluorescently lit customer room, over luggage of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

During their go to the day earlier than his execution, Hancock had appeared largely fixated on his ultimate meal, that one bucket of darkish meat rooster.

Moss stopped his automotive in entrance of the three-story constructing on the jail grounds the place he would spend the subsequent hours ready. He obtained out and stood nonetheless for a second. He thought of the chance that Hancock had hope for survival, not by way of divine intervention however by way of the state’s. Gov. Kevin Stitt — who two years in the past mentioned he claimed “each sq. inch” of Oklahoma for Jesus Christ — may nonetheless grant clemency. He had just below three hours.

But if the hour of loss of life got here to cross, what would the chaplain do? Moss felt viscerally the absence of any greater energy on the jail compound that morning.

“It’s well-known that folks that actually consider, that actually have religion, die higher,” he mentioned. “How can we assist folks die higher that don’t have supernatural religion?”

In jail, they’ve a reputation for individuals who discover God after they’re locked up: “Jailhouse Jesus.” History is rife with examples together with, famously, Malcolm X, who discovered religion in jail and left to be a minister of the Nation of Islam.

Scholars who examine the phenomenon discover that in jail, religion could be a consolation. People are trying to find a brand new id past “prison,” a way of empowerment, the vocabulary to say sorry and the sensation of management over their future. Religion solutions all these calls: The new id is that of a convert. The energy is in being an agent of God. The path to forgiveness runs by way of perception, or proselytizing. And previous sins grow to be simply steps on the trail to God.

Hancock, 59, had the alternative path. He had entered jail as a Christian, with an urge for food for studying, studying and debate that he shared with many imprisoned believers. Along the best way, he grew to become an atheist.

As a baby, in Oklahoma City, he went together with his mother and father to a Methodist Church. He and his buddies usually left companies and went to a close-by automotive salvage lot to smoke weed and cigarettes. In the summer time, Hancock went to a Baptist Bible college, the place he recalled being judged for his household’s freewheeling spiritual practices.

“They’d inform me why all of the Methodists have been going to burn in hell, as a result of we smoke, we drink, we dance, we’re impious and profane and we lie, cheat, steal,” Hancock mentioned in an interview with The Times. “We’re simply all abominate.”

Hancock steadily felt his religion was being examined. When he was a baby, in response to his personal recollections and people of his mom, the 2 of them fled dwelling to flee Hancock’s father, now dead, who they mentioned was bodily abusive.

Hancock’s youthful brother, David Craig, was born together with his umbilical twine wrapped round his neck, leaving him with cerebral palsy. Hancock cared for his little brother and recalled moving into fights when older boys taunted him. Sometimes, Hancock mentioned he regarded on the crucifix in his bed room and puzzled if his religion was misplaced.

Still, in 2001, Hancock referred to as himself a Christian. He wasn’t religious, however he was a believer.

One evening in late April of that yr, in response to case paperwork, Hancock went to the house of Robert Lee Jett Jr. Jett had been supplying medication to Hancock’s then girlfriend, who was staying with Jett whereas she and Hancock have been preventing over her drug use.

Hancock and Jett obtained into an argument, together with Jett’s buddy, James Vincent Lynch. During the dispute, Hancock wrested away Jett’s pistol. He then shot and killed each males. After killing them, Hancock evaded seize for a yr, till he was booked into the county jail on an unrelated cost.

At the time of the killings, Hancock attributed his survival to God.

“This is one thing that my stepdad used to inform me — he used to say, ‘God is aware of what you want earlier than you want it,’” Hancock mentioned throughout a telephone name in May with Moss. “I walked out of the home considering God had intervened on my behalf to ship me from the fingers of violent males.”

During Hancock’s trial, prosecutors argued that he didn’t commit the murders in self-defense. Hancock fired a number of photographs, at a distance from the 2 males. Hancock had additionally been convicted of manslaughter in 1982, when he shot an acquaintance in a dispute. In that case, he additionally claimed the capturing was in self-defense and served just below three years in jail.

In 2004, an Oklahoma jury discovered Hancock responsible of two counts of first diploma homicide and sentenced him to loss of life.

Hancock entered Oklahoma State Penitentiary, or Big Mac, as it’s recognized. The most safety jail is ready on 1,556 acres in McAlester, with greater than 800 folks housed in a sprawling white construction surrounded by fences topped by double strands of razor wire. It serves as a backdrop to the opening pages of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and it’s the place some 206 folks have been executed since 1915.

In jail, Hancock began to obtain visits from missionaries, a standard incidence. He met proselytizers who advised him that they had personally raised folks from the dead, or witnessed mass graves come again to life, which Hancock referred to as “hooey and hokum.”

He began to view these proselytizing guests as insurance coverage brokers, promoting insurance coverage not for all times however for the afterlife. “We’ve obtained a particular this month on afterlife insurance coverage,” Hancock favored to joke.

Hancock started studying ravenously in order that he may debate the missionaries. He learn the Bible, usually quoting tales that depict God as violent, like that of the vengeance on the Midianites. He learn “Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions,” which debunks biblical tales. He notably loved “A Manual for Creating Atheists,” by the thinker Peter Boghossian.

Over his early years in jail, Hancock had come to really feel deserted by God.

Then, in 2007, a court docket denied the enchantment of his loss of life sentence. Hancock had a revelation: “I made a decision, it makes extra sense to me to hate a God that doesn’t exist than to be slave to at least one,” he mentioned. “The weight of the world got here off of me. Because I wasn’t involved about this maniacal, narcissistic, omnicidal psychopath.”

He started to embrace the joys of cross-examining visiting missionaries. “I pressure them by way of mild persuasion, by way of the Socratic methodology, to make them query for themselves why they consider what they suppose that they consider,” he mentioned.

He mentioned he took care, although, to argue with empathy. He didn’t need to destroy what he referred to as a “delusion” that these missionaries would possibly want on their very own deathbeds.

But for Hancock, coming to establish as an atheist introduced a troublesome query: What may maintain him day-to-day — by way of rage and grief and concern of his looming execution — with out religion in an influence mightier than the individuals who had determined to finish his life?

The chaplain, Moss, 48, grew up in Hailey, Idaho, and jokes that he was born with an existential disaster: Instead of popping out of the womb saying “wah,” he got here out saying “why?”

His mother and father tried to boost him to be religious. He went to a non-public Christian college, a part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God. At college, within the Nineteen Eighties, Moss and his classmates participated in rapture drills, akin to earthquake or hearth drills. A teacher blew a whistle, one baby ran to get a drum package and one other obtained a recorder, after which the category performed worship songs.

Constantly curious, Moss began asking thorny questions on biblical tales just like the story of Jonah and the whale. “Wait, so he lived within the stomach of the whale?” Moss requested. “I don’t know if that’s attainable? And for what number of days?”

Adrift after highschool, Moss joined the Marines. During boot camp, he took Catholic affirmation lessons as a result of they gave him an excuse to get away from his drill sergeants.

Later, in a movie diploma program on the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote scripts about existentialism. He studied Friedrich Nietzsche, Baruch Spinoza, Joseph Campbell and Buddhist philosophers. He realized the existentialists made extra sense to him than the Christian teachings of his youth. And he ultimately concluded that he didn’t consider in God, although he nonetheless sought a way of religious goal.

He determined to make a podcast about spirituality and loss of life referred to as “The Adventures of Memento Mori,” referring to the Latin phrase: “Remember you must die.” During a podcast interview, a Buddhist chaplain, the Rev. Trudi Jinpu Hirsch-Abramson, advised Moss: “You’d make chaplain.”

The comment caught with him. He discovered that there was a theological seminary in Chicago launching a brand new program for humanists. Moss enrolled on the Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2019, taking lessons on ethics, Buddhism and creating inclusive communities. He did a residency as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in New York through the pandemic and graduated in June 2022.

He didn’t know what sort of job a freshly graduated atheist chaplain may land. But the chance arrived rapidly when the American Humanist Association heard from a crew of attorneys whose consumer on loss of life row in Oklahoma needed a chaplain who didn’t consider in God.

“Hello sir. How are you doing?” Moss wrote in a letter to Hancock in early 2023. “It can be an honor to be by your aspect in religious help for these subsequent months — be it a prayer, meditation, an existential ponder, a cry and even a joke. I need you to know that you’re not alone.”

Moss included his telephone quantity within the letter in order that Hancock may attain him. The calls have been recorded, as a robotic voice introduced initially, and capped at 20 minutes.

During certainly one of their first calls collectively, final February, Hancock defined to his new religious adviser the conundrum that he confronted: “I need greater than something to consider in one thing aside from this,” Hancock mentioned. “I simply can’t do it although, missing proof.”

It was clear to Moss that his religious care consumer was seething with frustration at his sentence.

“I are likely to get adrenaline rushes once I take into consideration this as a result of I’m so offended,” Hancock advised Moss in February 2023. “They’ve stolen my life from me.”

Hancock shared together with his chaplain among the poems and songs he turned to for consolation, just like the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling (“If you’ll be able to preserve your head when all about you / Are dropping theirs and blaming it on you”) and a music by Slipknot that features the road, “Everybody has to die.”

“Everybody does die,” Moss agreed. “But you’re completely different within the sense that there’s a day on the calendar.”

Hancock was adamant about the best way he needed to face his loss of life. “If it comes right down to it, I’m sustaining my dignity,” he mentioned. “I’ll make them ashamed to be scared when it’s their flip to die. They’ll say, ‘We’ve obtained to carry our heads excessive, like Hancock.’”

Hancock had one request of his religious adviser. It was drawn from a set of Bible verses, Philippians 4:7-8.

“Show me one thing actual,” he mentioned to Moss. “Tell me one thing true.”

As Hancock shared tales from his childhood, Moss tried to get a way of his character. “Were you the category clown rising up in any respect?” he as soon as requested.

“I’m reluctant to take a seat right here and say what I’m or how I’m,” Hancock replied. “Because normally when folks inform you that they’re a sure method, plenty of instances they’re not.”

Sometimes they mentioned philosophy; Hancock favored to cite Plato, Pyrrho and Buddhist thinkers. (“Everything’s ‘perhaps’ with the Buddhists; it looks like all of it boils right down to ‘perhaps,’” Hancock mentioned, to which Moss replied: “It’s a sensible perhaps.”) They explored biblical tales — Noah’s flood, Cain and Abel, Samson and Delilah.

“What’s fascinating, Phil, is how a lot the Bible and Christianity and the Old Testament influences you,” Moss mentioned.

“That stuff is historic knowledge that was commandeered by folks with lower than harmless intent,” Hancock replied.

From time to time, Moss puzzled aloud what precisely Hancock was looking for in these meandering discussions: “Why did you are feeling it was essential to get a religious care adviser for this a part of your life?”

Hancock defined that his preliminary motive was easy. Because of a Supreme Court ruling in 2022, which mentioned death row inmates had the right to be with their spiritual advisers during the execution, Moss would be capable of be within the execution chamber.

Hancock needed somebody by his aspect to make sure nothing went awry. He talked worriedly about Oklahoma’s 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who after his injections started to writhe, declaring that his physique felt prefer it was “on hearth.” He had a coronary heart assault within the execution chamber.

Hancock mentioned he favored the concept of getting Moss subsequent to him on the finish. “You’re an exquisite particular person, so far as I can inform,” he mentioned. “I imply, you’re completely charming. I such as you man. You’re a pleasant particular person. I believe you’re honest.”

When their telephone conversations drifted into retracing Hancock’s authorized case, Moss tried to push them again into the realm of the religious. “I need to see if there are alternatives and areas that you just discover peace or pleasure or some kind of gentle,” Moss mentioned. “Is there something?”

Hancock defined that he discovered a way of goal in his battle for clemency, for survival. “I’m not accomplished but, like I mentioned — I like life,” he mentioned. “I’m going to battle to the bitter finish of this.”

“It’s precisely what Virgil mentioned to Dante,” Hancock mentioned. “In order to get out of this, it’s important to undergo it.”

Moss started visiting in particular person beginning in July. The two sat collectively, with Hancock’s buddy Hosch, the anti-death penalty activist, for 4 hours within the visitation room, surrounded by different inmates spending time with their wives and youngsters.

Moss felt like he had spent months swimming in Hancock’s ache and anger, however sitting reverse each other was completely different — taking in Hancock’s skinny body, draped in a maroon jail jumpsuit, his head coated in scars and his nostril that had been damaged in a number of locations. Their laughter felt extra real after they have been simply inches aside.

Hancock was touched that Moss had flown from Brooklyn to McAlester to see him. Hancock defined that after their first go to, questioning how he appeared in particular person to his chaplain, he had been interested by a lyric from the Butthole Surfers: “You by no means know simply the way you look by way of different folks’s eyes.”

Moss stopped feeling so anxious about what he was providing Hancock. He listened, as Hancock ate merchandising machine cheeseburgers and drank cans of Mountain Dew. It grew to become clear to Moss that Hancock didn’t consider in God, however he did consider in what folks can do for one another. He appeared to consider, particularly, within the relationship he was constructing with Moss.

In August, Moss determined that he would sublet his Brooklyn condominium and transfer to Oklahoma for the month main as much as the execution in order that he may go to the jail extra simply. The time they spent collectively in particular person felt extra human — the attention contact, the stretches of time uninhibited by the 20-minute telephone restrict.

“Hey Devin, man, you’re blowing me away,” Hancock mentioned when he heard in regards to the chaplain’s plans. “You’re exhibiting me one thing I haven’t seen from — I don’t recall anyone actually coming by way of like this.”

They saved revisiting the authorized case, too, as a result of Hancock and his attorneys have been busy making ready for a clemency listening to after they would ask the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to think about new proof that Hancock had acted in self-defense. They introduced testimony from Hancock’s ex-girlfriend that she had requested Jett to “maintain” Hancock.

The state argued he nonetheless deserved the loss of life penalty. “Hancock is earlier than you now, over 20 years on from the double homicide of Jett and Lynch, nonetheless asserting his authorized innocence, nonetheless claiming he acted in self-defense,” the workplace of the legal professional common wrote to the board. “But the proof doesn’t again that up.”

State officers mentioned that Hancock’s actions throughout and after the murders conflicted together with his declare that he acted in self-defense and feared for his life. They famous that he “calmly drove away from the scene” and didn’t go to a health care provider or name the police.

“The losses of Robert Jett Jr., and James Lynch have been a tragic setback to each their households,” attorneys for the state mentioned.

Still, the board voted, 3-2, to advocate clemency. Gov. Stitt would make the ultimate resolution, and he had up till the scheduled hour of the execution to reply.

Moss anxious that recordings of his telephone conversations with Hancock would possibly affect the last word resolution; all of the tape could possibly be out there to the governor, who attends an Assemblies of God church (the identical denomination that Moss was raised in). Moss voiced his concern to Hancock, however each felt they didn’t need concern to restrict their discussions.

Moss generally posed deeper, cerebral questions, the type he had initially envisioned that he would discover as a chaplain, like the place people ought to discover their ethical compass.

“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,” Hancock mentioned in a mid-November telephone name, explaining his view of ethics with a biblical passage. “That’s it in a nutshell. That’s it. You don’t must have all these different issues, you don’t must consider in sure issues — that God has been and at all times shall be.”

“What do you suppose occurs when an individual dies?” Moss requested one other time.

Hancock assured his chaplain he discovered morsels of consolation in his nonbelief. “Nonexistence didn’t trouble me earlier than I existed,” he mentioned. “I don’t suppose it’s going to trouble me after I’m dead.”

The execution was set for Nov. 30 at 10 a.m.

The evening earlier than, Moss ironed his white pants and white shirt. If the execution went ahead — and it nonetheless was not clear that it might — he needed to seem like a religious authority whereas standing at Hancock’s aspect. He needed Hancock to grasp he had a buddy with him, however that it was additionally an individual who had a deeper position to play, somebody who had touched his soul.

That morning, Moss wrote out in a pocket book what he deliberate to say to Hancock of their ultimate minutes collectively. Hancock, not in a position to make telephone calls, was in his cell listening to music from the heavy metallic band Slayer, certainly one of his favorites.

Moss arrived on the jail at 7:35 and entered the room the place he would watch for a call from the governor. The minutes moved in a torturous crawl. Soon it was 8:30, then it was 9 a.m. The attorneys and jail workers have been ready collectively, some making small discuss in regards to the rain.

Around 10:10, an aide for the governor referred to as. The execution was to maneuver ahead, rapidly. Over on loss of life row, the inmates gave Hancock a send-off — kicking their doorways and filling the jail with the rumbling sound of a makeshift goodbye.

Because of the delay, Moss needed to minimize quick his ultimate minutes with Hancock. He had been advised that they might be collectively for 20 minutes, however as a substitute they obtained solely about 10. “Phil’s been shorted once more,” he thought, remembering the fried rooster.

Moss was shuttled to H-unit, the place the execution chamber was situated. He entered the sparse room the place Hancock lay strapped to a gurney, carrying a grey shirt and with a white sheet protecting the decrease half of his physique. Moss was struck by how tiny the area was, and the tightness of the straps slung over the gurney.

He rested a hand on Hancock’s knee and recited the phrases that he had written in his pocket book: “We name the spirit of humanity into this area,” Moss mentioned. “Let love fill our hearts. We ask that on this transition into peaceable oblivion that Phil feels that love, and though that is his journey that he’s not alone. We invoke the facility of peace, power, grace and give up. Amen.”

He thanked Hancock for the information he had shared — the expansive vocabulary, the experience on scripture and faith and, in fact, the countless jokes, of which about seven out of 10 had landed. “Seven?” Hancock interrupted, tilting his head up. “Out of 10?”

“Man,” mentioned the jail’s chief of operations, who was standing close by with one other corrections officer. “That’s a fairly good proportion.”

Moss turned to his ultimate phrases for Hancock. “In the start of this, once I requested what you actually needed out of a religious care adviser, it was Philippians chapter 4,” he mentioned. “Show me one thing actual, present me one thing true.”

Moss regarded on the face he had come to know properly. “What is actual is that you’re liked,” he advised his buddy. “What is true is you aren’t alone.”

The curtain in entrance of Hancock’s gurney rose at 11:13, revealing the witnesses — Hosch, two of Hancock’s attorneys, the state’s legal professional common and an official from his workplace, in addition to 5 members of the media, who supplied an in depth account of the execution.

Hancock mentioned, jokingly: “Where my enemies at?”

To Moss, his voice was the identical as at all times, buzzing with power. It was time for his ultimate phrases. He thanked his authorized crew and advised the legal professional common, who was seated within the entrance row together with his legs crossed, that he had been “hoodwinked.” He advised his witnesses that he had acted in self-defense, and nonetheless hoped to be exonerated after his loss of life.

“I don’t need anybody on the market crying for me,” he added, addressing Hosch: “You, Sue — I don’t need you doing that.”

At 11:15, Hancock was given a three-drug deadly injection: midazolam for sedation, vecuronium bromide to halt respiration and potassium chloride, which stops the guts. As his eyes closed and his chest rose and fell, liquid transferring by way of the I.V., Moss stood at his toes, hoping his buddy may hear him. “You are liked,” Moss mentioned time and again. “You usually are not alone.”

At 11:23, Hancock was unconscious. When his chest stopped transferring and his face appeared to lose shade, the jail physician referred to as his identify, listened to his coronary heart, opened each his eyes and inspected them beneath a lightweight. At 11:29, Hancock was pronounced dead.

Even after all of the phrases that they had exchanged, about existence and mortality and human cruelty, Moss hadn’t been ready for the finality of this second. The dialog between the 2 had appeared, generally, as if it might by no means finish; there have been no conclusions, solely extra threads to unspool.

Looking at Hancock’s physique, Moss shocked himself by murmuring a spontaneous prayer, which got here out involuntarily, like a sneeze. He prayed that no matter got here subsequent for Hancock, that he can be dealt a greater set of playing cards.

The households of the victims, Jett and Lynch, spoke within the jail’s media room proper afterward. “I’m grateful that justice has been served in response to God’s will,” mentioned Lynch’s niece, studying a message from her mom. “I can solely hope that he selected to get his soul proper with God earlier than his window of alternative closed for eternity.”

Outside the execution chamber, the drizzle had become sheets of rain. Moss sat in his automotive and commenced to cry.

In his hand was the paper the place he had written down his ultimate message to Hancock. There have been the directions he had written to himself: “Call the spirit of humanity into this area.” And there was a sentence fragment he’d crossed out, following the phrase spirit: “Of the divine.”

Moss had gone forwards and backwards on find out how to strategy these final moments. He knew he needed his ultimate phrases to his buddy to honor what each of them believed to be true, as he mentioned driving away from the jail: “God has nothing to do with this.”



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