Published: 05/22/99 Kingston Daily Freeman Byline: By CYNTHIA WERTHAMER, Freeman staff - Copyright© 1999. All rights reserved. The following writing may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any way including electronically, without the prior written consent of the author.

From Witness to Crusader

KINGSTON - When Jane Davis was sent as an observer to a death row inmate's execution six years ago, she had no idea the experience would change her life.

"I was not prepared," she told a group of Kingston High School students on Friday. "I wanted to jump up and yell, 'Stop!' but I was sent there to witness, and I did. ... I did not witness a political issue. I witnessed a human being, being fried before my eyes. It broke my heart."

Davis, a Kingston High School graduate, now lives in Atlanta, Ga., not far from where a student shot six schoolmates on Thursday. She is the founder of a spiritually based non-profit organization called HOPE-HOWSE, which stands for Help Other People Evolve through Honest Open Willing Self-Evaluation.

She was back in the Kingston area to speak at today's anti-death penalty conference at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, which also is to feature, among others, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka; paroled cop killer and former death row inmate Charles Culhane, who was convicted in Ulster County; and a Japanese photographer who focuses on juveniles on death row, and Sam Shepherd, son of Dr. Shepherd known for the basis for "The Fugitive." Davis' mission, however, is not specifically to end the death penalty which was reinstituted in New York in 1995 - but to create a more humane society.

"I'm not here to impose my views on the death penalty," she told students in Donn Avallone's criminal justice class. "I'm here to ask you to please think. I don't care what you think, but I care that you do."

Her organization, she said, "deals with human beings, not an issue." Some people with whom she works are on death row; others are in gangs; still others are clergy. "What I do is help people from all walks and Ways of life to understand there is no 'them and us,' it's just 'us.'"

"Someone can do horrible things, but there are other consequences," Davis said. "Let's not even do away with the death penalty; let's have a moratorium. Just let's think about it. For those who need to hold onto the option of executing, let's just wait and re-examine. We can always kill him next year."

A former student of Avallone's, Davis said she was honored to return to the high school, "where we were all one community together." Since her graduation, she has tried to connect people whose paths might not otherwise cross. She wants to show inmates that those on the outside are real people, and vice versa.

"I have as many friends behind bars as out here," she said. "They (prisoners) want the things they've done to have some effect, by having me talk to people like you."

She read part of a letter from a 17-year-old gang leader serving time for rape and kidnapping: "My only dream is to write poems and be somebody special."

As Davis put it later: "I'm working with those at the end of the line and the beginning of the line."

KHS senior Chrissy Lavezzo, 19, sat wide-eyed hearing Davis' description of the execution of Chris Berger.

"Wow," she said as class let out. "I think there should be more people like her, and in every high school. I know we have guidance counselors and school psychologists, but we need someone like her to talk to."

back to Articles