Inmate applies Catholic faith towards becoming a better person

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, left, and David Paul Hammer, on Oct. 27, 2000, Hammer's confirmation and first Eucharist.

David Hammer
Who he is: Inmate in the general population*, serving a life sentence without parole.
Lives in: Tuscon, Ariz. (previously lived in Terre Haute, Ind.)

Sr. Camille: 15 years have gone by since you first contacted me. You were an inmate in Allenwood, Pa., anticipating a January 1999 execution. Your request was for someone to pray for you and for your victim, whom you killed in prison, and to serve as a spiritual guide for the remaining weeks of your life. Unable to find anyone to visit you in the weeks before Christmas, I made arrangements to come myself in the company of the late Fr. Edward Doherty. The date was Dec. 30, 1998. What was that first encounter like for you?

Hammer: It was a very profound experience. Even though the visit had been scheduled in advance, I wasn't at all certain you would actually come. When I was escorted into the visiting area, I saw you and Fr. Ed, introductions were made. From the beginning, it was as if a dam had burst as I let the words and emotions pour out. I'm sure it was a combination of my circumstances, the kindness shown by you both and my need to connect with something larger, that being, to know God and be ready to meet Him. I felt His presence in that room. I didn't know much about Catholics and nothing about confession, only what I'd seen on television as a youngster. When you stepped out so that I could converse with Fr. Ed alone, my version of a confession followed. I knew that God was listening.

My reaction was this: Fr. Ed and I had been warned that you were very dangerous and we would have a non-contact visit. As we waited in a small room within the visiting area, three guards delivered you -- a large man with handcuffs and body shackles. Ed and I stood up and you extended your hands, saying, "I'm David Hammer. Why did you come?"

I replied, "Because I couldn't find anyone else to do so." At my honest response, you burst out laughing, and so our relationship began.

Please describe your childhood.

I never had a childhood. My younger and teenage years were marred by periods of extreme poverty, neglect and abuse. There were times when we had little or no food. We would live in abandoned houses or old cars, or we'd stay near a lake and use public facilities to shower. We had no electricity or indoor plumbing.

How did you support yourselves?

We worked as a family on farms during the summer and fall, moving from place to place in rural Oklahoma or parts of Texas. Ours was a nomadic lifestyle, moving from one job site to another. In the winter months my parents moved us to Oklahoma City where we would rent a house of some sort and furnish it with stuff from thrift stores over a period of months. My dad would work as a gas station attendant and Mom as a waitress or nursing assistant. Being the oldest of three children, it fell upon me to take care of my siblings after school and to do the housework and other chores. My sister would help, but my brother was too little then. I was only seven when first given these responsibilities.

What were those years like?

Those years were marked by severe mental, physical and sexual abuse, beginning when I was five years old. The abuse never really stopped until I left home, first at thirteen, then for good at fifteen. The physical abuse was mostly inflicted by my mother. She was a dominant, violent and abusive woman. The abuse was unpredictable and commonplace. The sexual abuse included incest and far worse. I often prayed to God to let me die.

What was your father like?

My dad was a hard-working and good-hearted man, but submissive to my mother. He also had his demons and inflicted his own perverse abuse upon my sister and me. I had an extended family but didn't spend much time with them.

How were you educated?

During my school age years I attended twenty different schools and some of them more than once. I did continue going to school on my own before dropping out in the tenth grade to get married. I obtained my GED in prison.

Did you have any role models?

I never had any. I would see other boys with their parents and the sort of normal lives they had and I would wish I could be them. There were people I learned about in school that inspired me to overcome obstacles. The baseball player Johnny Bench is from Binger, Okla. He was a local hero and I wished I could be like him.

What led you to criminal behavior?

There was no single thing that caused me to begin breaking the law. When I was living on the streets I used drugs to deal with my problems. It was a way of escaping reality. No one forced me to do this; it was a choice. I'd work at different jobs, often stealing money or things from work. When working as a dishwasher or busboy, I took food to eat, or to sell or trade. So that was the beginning of my criminal activity. It escalated from there.

What led to your long-term incarceration?

At age 19 I was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for having taken three people hostage in the emergency room at Baptist Hospital in Oklahoma City. I had previously been a patient in the psychiatric unit there, being treated for drug addiction. On Jan. 18, 1978, while high on PCP, I went into the emergency room armed with a pistol. I screamed, "I need help!" and took hostages. After several hours I was overpowered and arrested by the SWAT team. I pled guilty to kidnapping and pointing a dangerous weapon and was sentenced to prison. I escaped twice and received additional sentences. I received an additional ten years for the first escape and related charges that occurred in 1981. In 1984, at age 25, after the second escape, I was sentenced to twelve-hundred years for kidnapping, robbery, and shooting with intent to kill. That sentence was determined by a jury and imposed by a judge. I assumed the jury felt I should die in prison.

What got you the death penalty?

I was sentenced to death for the murder of my cellmate, which occurred on April 13, 1996. I pled guilty to that offense and received that sentence on the recommendation of the jury. My death sentence was imposed on Nov. 4, 1998 and my execution scheduled for Jan. 16, 1999. I had several more execution dates and once came within 48 hours of being executed.

I remember that well. Before I left New York to be with you Fr. Daniel Berrigan offered Mass for you in his apartment, then served a dinner he prepared for me and two of my friends.

There were other appeals, leading to the order for a new trial. That occurred in June 2014 and on Aug. 20, I was resentenced to life without parole.

As you know, several other Sisters of Mercy joined me in testifying on your behalf. We told the court of the good that you had accomplished for the sake of children in need. But I'm getting ahead of our story. Can you identify some influences that led to your change of heart?

It was within several months of my victim's death. One of my attorneys had sent me Sr. Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking … I was 38 at the time. I read it, weeping at times. It gave me a different perspective of my own plight. I began to pray, not for myself, but for my victim's family. On Christmas night 1997 I broke down and asked God to forgive me for a lifetime of sins. I felt a weight lifting and experienced a peace words can't describe. As the weeks progressed I took little steps on the path to becoming a better person.

What made you decide to become a Catholic?

I wanted to be a part of the religion of the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Providence. After my first visit with you and Fr. Ed, other Catholics came into my life. One of the most important is Sr. Rita Clare Gerardot, a Sister of Providence from St. Mary of the Woods. It was through you that she learned of me and became a regular visitor. You have often reminded me that, while you live too far away to come often, Sr. Rita Clare is the greatest gift you could give me and I agree. When I realized it was Catholics who had shown me so much love and kindness I wanted to be part of that community.

How did that come about?

One day Archbishop Daniel Buechlein from Indianapolis was visiting death row. I didn't know what an archbishop was, other than that he was Catholic. After speaking with him for a few minutes I asked him to confirm me. He said he would be honored to do so. Over the next six months I received instruction and help from several people. My friend, Jeff Paul, was also preparing to be confirmed.

Please describe the event.

On Oct. 27, 2000, Jeff and I were confirmed by Archbishop Buechlein during a specially arranged ceremony on the death row unit at USP-Terre Haute. It was life changing for me. I could feel God's presence in that room. The ceremony was attended by you, Sr. Rita Clare, Chaplains Bill Lang and Fr. Frank Roof, an associate warden, the warden's assistant and three other inmates. Our individual cages were side by side. The blessings, anointing and Eucharist were given through food slot openings on the cage doors. The archbishop conducted a Mass and full ceremony. There was music, prayers, conversation and refreshments. The officers allowed us to have photographs taken and to receive a hug from Sr. Rita Clare and you. It was a most joyful occasion.

Over the past 13 years the Christmas cards you have designed have raised over $95,000 to help children in need. Please say something about that.

That project was born out of a need for me to do something positive after Timothy McVeigh's and Juan Garza's executions in June 2001. During our visit that month you suggested that we produce Christmas cards as a way of raising funds to help abused children or children at risk. It was decided I'd do the artwork; you'd provide the text and marketing of the cards. Through our efforts thousands of children and their families have benefitted from the donations made. As a result of this project, I have become personally involved by corresponding with children and others. It's given my life meaning and purpose. Instead of taking from people, it's my way of giving back.

Have you had any direct connection with children?

The boys at the Alpha and St. John Bosco Boys' Homes in Jamaica, West Indies, have become my little brothers. Those facilities, founded and run by the Sisters of Mercy for over a hundred years, provide a safe harbor for these boys. They are given an education with opportunities to learn a trade. We exchange letters; they draw me pictures and I encourage them to better themselves and explain what a life of crime and violence can lead to. ... They pray for me and bring me such joy!

Who are the people in your life that mean much to you?

My son Scott, my grandson Robbie, my maternal uncle Ron, you, Sr. Rita Clare and others too numerous to mention by name all mean the world to me. I am blessed to have such a family of friends. Being part of the Cherish Life Circle, the group you founded to oppose capital punishment, and being a Providence associate with the Sisters at St. Mary of the Woods have brought so many people into my world.

How is your health?

I suffer from several chronic physical conditions, including diabetes and related eye and feet problems. I suffered a heart attack in 2007 and had a stint implanted the following year. So my overall health is fair and I'm able to make the best of each day.

How would you describe your spiritual side?

I've never given this much thought. I guess I'd say it's very private. I do my best to treat others the way I'd want to be treated. I try to live my life in a way that I can be proud of doing what I can to make a difference from where I am. God knows my heart and that is what really matters to me. This is my spirituality as I practice the simple teachings of Jesus.

What is your image of God?

I envision God as all powerful, loving and forgiving. God wants me to follow his Word to the best of my ability. He is a true Father Figure to me.

How do you pray?

I pray in different ways. Most often I just talk out loud to God, having a conversation with Him. At other times I pray silently or meditate. My favorite prayer is the prayer of St. Francis that begins with, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." At my confirmation I took the name of Francis because he is my favorite saint.

I appreciate the passage from Romans 10:13: "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

What is it like to live on death row?

Being on death row is not so different from being in a regular prison cell. The exception is that some leave the row only to be executed. Others leave when their sentences are modified or receive new trials. Having spent the past 37 years in prison I've seen the same things in the general population as well. Prisons in general are not nice places, nor are they intended to be. However, according to the Constitution, people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Being removed from society is the punishment; it's not to be subjected to harsh treatment under punitive conditions. Death row is different because a person awaits his date with the executioner and the uncertainty of his fate, the waiting … that is what I find to be the worst part of living on death row.

Do you have opportunities to help others?

Yes. I do legal work for other inmates when I can. I've also been able to help start up a program that provides Christmas gifts for the children of the men on the row. This is accomplished with the assistance of volunteers in the community. Through the generosity of those on the outside I've helped to facilitate visits between guys here and their families who aren't able to come otherwise. I've been able to help some get commissary items or money to place calls to home. Giving something to another inmate is against the rules and I've been punished numerous times for doing it, but I find that to be an unjust rule and accept the consequences of my actions.

How do you relax?

I read, listen to music, pray, write letters and articles and stay busy. I also watch television. My favorite drama is Blue Bloods; my favorite comedy is The Big Bang Theory.

Does anything in Catholicism worry you?

The way women are treated. That is something I will never understand. Women should be able to preach and assume duties equal to those of a priest. Additionally, I think the stance against married priests is outdated and hampers the efforts of the church.

What causes you sorrow?

To learn of children being abused, neglected or put in danger. Children should always be protected.

What makes you happy?

To hear my grandson Robbie's voice on the phone. To hear his words. His laugh and when he says, "I love you, Grandpa."

What lessons would you like to pass on to others?

I'm not in any position to pass on lessons to others. What I've learned through my own experiences is that life all boils down to choices: those we make and those we don't.

Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

I've made many mistakes during my lifetime and even though I've been forgiven by God, I can never make amends for the hurt and pain I've caused others. However, I do try to make a difference in this world. All I can do is work to be a better man and to make good choices day by day. People can change. I have. That was made possible through the lessons of a lifetime, my faith in God, and having the love and support of strangers who have come into my life and given me a chance. They have shown me the power of love, mercy and justice.

*An earlier version of this post stated that Hammer was on death row. He is no longer on death row, but in the general population.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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