Shortly after the Florida Supreme Court’s absurd December 22, 2016 ruling issued in Mark Asay v State of Florida, declaring that while all Florida death row prisoners illegally sentenced to death — but only those whose first round of appeals were final after 2002 would be entitled to relief, while the other approximately 174 death row prisoners sentenced prior to 2002 would still face execution, it appears that the first victim of this morally and constitutionally indefensible decision was not a death row prisoner, but a religious volunteer who ministered to the death row population.
Through the years most of us here have come to know and hold great respect for Catholic deacon Jason Roy because of both his uncompromised commitment to volunteering his time to minister to us, as well as his genuine friendship and compassion to those he came to know. It was a full-time job for which he receive no compensation, and rain or shine, he would make his rounds on every floor of the death row wings at both Florida State Prison and Union Correctional (the main death row unit.)
Many here requested that “Deacon Roy” be their own designated spiritual advisor, a status that allowed him to minister on-on-one with those inmates and administer communion. It also meant that if that inmate had a death warrant signed, Deacon Roy would be with him throughout the death watch process and be the condemned man’s designated witness to that execution, that one and only friendly face the dying man would see through the glass wall that separated the witness arena from the execution chamber.
When Governor Rick Scott signed a death warrant on Mark Asay the very day after Oscar Ray Bolin was executed (please read: “Execution Day: Involuntary Witness to State-Sanctioned Murder”), Asay was immediately transferred from Union Correctional to the death watch unit at Florida State Prison, where he joined me as we counted down the days towards our scheduled execution dates.
While my designated spiritual advisor was (and is) Catholic lay Minister Dale Recinella (check out his website at www.iwasinprison.org), Mark’s was Deacon Roy and both became frequent visitors to the death watch unit. It was immeasurable comfort and a reflection of the true spirit of Christian compassion, to have both Dale and Deacon Roy visit us on death watch regularly — and they reached out to our families as well.
Then in January 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Hurst v Florida, recognizing unequivocally that the manner in which Florida imposed death sentences by allowing the presiding judge to actually determine the sentence was unconstitutional as under the Sixth Amendment only the jury was authorized to determine whether the sentence of death should be imposed.
Because of that decision, in early February I received a stay of execution until it was decided whether Hurst would apply retroactively. A few weeks later Mark Asay received a similar “temporary” stay, and throughout 2016 we both remained on the regular death row wing pending the outcome.
After numerous related cases issued from the Florida Supreme Court, beginning with the October, 2016 decision in Hurst v Florida, all of us were confident that all Florida death sentences, with the exception of the relatively few who waived their jury determination of sentencing or had a 12 to 0 jury vote, would be thrown out and we all anxiously awaited that decision.
Then it came on December 22 — only days before Christmas! And while the ruling in the simultaneously released decision in Mobley v State did declare that the Hurst decision would apply retroactively to all those sentenced after June, 2002. In an 80-page decision in Mark Asay v State of Florida, a narrow majority of the court declared that while all those sentenced were illegally sentenced, because granting new sentencing for all would be too much of a burden on the judicial system. That effectively meant that of the 396 men and women on death row, approximately 212 would be entitled to have their sentences vacated, while the other 184 would not. Once again, the politics of death prevailed.
Shortly after receiving this news and learning that Mark Asay’s stay of execution had been lifted, Deacon Roy emailed the prison to arrange a visit with Mark… and then laid down to rest, obviously overcome with grief and despair, and passed away in his sleep. The first victim of the FSC’s absurd ruling went to be with the Lord.
Too often both the courts and the media focus exclusively on the condemned prisoner and don’t even recognize that all of us have family and friends who are deeply affected by the outcome of our cases. These are silent victims, as they’ve certainly committed no crimes. While family is born into this, there are those like Deacon Roy who volunteer their time and reach out to the condemned because that’s just what Jesus would have done.
And too often, their personal sacrifice goes unnoticed. Here in Florida there is a small number of regular Christian volunteers who generously give their own time to reach out and provide spiritual fellowship. For many of the condemned, this is the only visits they ever get — the only friendly face that they will know as they too face death.
So, today I just want to take a moment to ask all of you who read my blog to have a moment of silence in remembrance for Deacon Jason Roy and his family. If you go to church, maybe you can light a candle for him — and for the others who devote so much of their time to minister to the condemned — to Dale Recinella and his wife Susan, who for many years now have devoted their time to minister to the condemned and our families. Dale Recinella has written three excellent books on his experiences ministering to death row, available on his website: iwasinprison.org, and to the other Catholic volunteers, and to Bill and Ben of the Episcopalian Church, and Al Paquette of Al Paquette Ministries, and many more.
And beyond that small group, who give so much of themselves to come to minister to those on death row, there’s also the nonreligious group that are as equally committed to reaching out to the condemned with genuine compassion and in that true spirit of humanity give us each the strength to maintain that humanity within ourselves.
Finally, there are our own families and friends who carry this cross with us and suffer the consequences of our (alleged) crimes, and it’s not an easy cross to bear, as with each day they suffer with us even though they’ve committed no crime. And they too deserve a moment of silence in tribute for all they so generously sacrifice to be there for us.
In this world we (the condemned) live and die in, mercy and compassion are seldom seen as the individual acts are too often drowned out by the thunder of those in society who only cast stones and call for our death under the pretense of administering justice.
Deacon Roy will be greatly missed by many, including his family and so many more whose lives he touched. And as a testament to the life he chose to live, we — the least of the least — are something better because his life touched our own.