IT WAS 12:35 in the morning when the man burst from the Supreme Court building and ran across the street. The lights were behind him and so he ran through the drizzle like a ghost, backlighted and silhouetted, heading to the knot of people waiting for some news. "Marshall stayed the execution," he yelled. Someone said "Amen," and then someone made a short speech and then Luci Murphy, who lives where the No. 40 bus goes, started to sing. The rain came down heavier, but Luci Murphy kept singing, her pretty voice traveling across the street and up the stairs to the Supreme Court of the United States where the lights were out and on one was listening.
Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for their bail.
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on, hold on.
Across the street on the steps of the Supreme Court building, two policemen, dressed in black rain slickers, watched, and nearby in an unmarked car, more cops kept an eye on the small group. Occasionally a car would slow and the people inside would peer out and once in a while someone would pass by on foot, look over the group and move on.
Luci Murphy sang. People joined hands and she sang the old words of the spiritual. It has been used in the fields and in the civil rights, movements and now, tonight, in the rain. Sing Luci, sing, so a man in Florida might not die.
Earlier in the night, a car had scurried back and forth through Washington. Inside was the lawyer for the condemned man. He was asking members of the Supreme Court, one by one, to stay the execution of someone named John A. Spenkelink, age 30, a killer true and without doubt. He killed sometime ago when he was a youth, but he killed nonetheless. He was scheduled to die when the sun comes up in Florida.
"Stevens denied the stay," called out a man named Michael Kroll, formerly of the ACLU and now of the National Moratorium on Prison Construction. He made his announcement five minutes before midnight and he got the news from the small radio he held in his hand. Before him was a small table piled with literature, and around him were some 35 to 50 people-a pickup crew of the religious, the righteous, the committed and some like Luci Murphy, who believe, simply, that men should not kill other men.
David Clarke, the City Council member, paced the sidewalk. To his right was the Capitol of the United States and to his left was the Supreme Court, and in his head was a memory. He had come to this court every Monday as a law student. He got $10 a day to call up to New York and report to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund the decisions of the court. In 1969, it was David Clarke who reported that the Supreme Court had all but abolished capital punishment. No more men would die.
Suddenly, the night became quiet. The traffic ceased for some reason and the people stopped talking. One by one, they sat on the low wall bordering the Capitol grounds, some of them holding candles, all of them prepared for the long wait. The clock is ticking. Uptown, on this night, the cops have had a building under siege, looking for an escaped con, and in a city-run home for the aged, Junior Exton, 65, unaffected obviously by the revival of the deterrent, alledgedly stabs to death John Dickerson, 68, over a bottle of wine.
In San Francisco, a man can murder twice and be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and in Prince George's County a kid can kill two cops and be convicted of something less than murder. In Florida, though, John Spenkelink must die for the murder of another escaped criminal who, he says, sodomized him.
The people sit on the wall. Luci Murphy is among them. Luci Murphy thinks that the death penalty has been used to keep black people in their place. Luci Murphy thinks that an execution is a political act. Luci Murphy thinks people can improve, get better - reform. "If you kill someone, there's no hope in their changing," Luci Murphy says.
Suddenly, the man darted across the street and announced the stay of execution. When he finished and just as everyone started to drift off, the voice of Luci Murphy came from behind me. It was a beautiful voice and it seemed to hang in the wet night air - verse after verse after verse.
Paul and Silas began to shout, The jail sprung open and they walked out.
Keep your eye on the prize, Hold on, hold on.
With the last note, she walked off with some other people to the bus stop. You'll be hearing from her. They're about to execute people once again.
It's time to sing spirituals.