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The Prisoner and the Pizzas

WEB Pizza Box Eddie Welker

Eddie Welker

Kathy Schiffer - published on 02/03/14

On May 6, 2007, Phillip Workman was offered a final meal before his execution for a crime he did not commit. What Workman chose as his last meal will amaze you.
In May 2007, homeless men and women in Nashville, Tennessee and across America feasted on vegetarian pizzas, courtesy of a death row inmate by the name of Philip Workman.  A homeless, strung-out cocaine addict, Workman had been convicted in 1982 for the murder of a Memphis police officer, following the botched robbery of a Wendy's restaurant. 
In the ensuing years, however, Workman–now drug-free–found his way to Christ.  The Reverend Jane Fisler Hoffman, a United Church of Christ minister who visited Workman in prison and the wife of a former police officer, had this to say: 
"He talked about having no use for Christianity until he had a dream that he had fallen down into a deep hole. A rope came down to him. Certain that like most other things in his life, the rope would pull away from him, he gave it a try anyway. The rope did not move away and he climbed up to his jail cell floor. He felt that God had reached down and pulled him out of his despair. From then on he began to read, pray and study the Bible."
At the same time, the case against Workman had begun to unravel: five of the original jurors signed affidavits renouncing either the sentence or the verdict, citing medical and ballistics evidence which had not been presented in the original trial, and which pointed to an accidental shooting by another officer at the scene. Additionally, one prosecution witness, Harold Davis, retracted his earlier testimony–admitting that he had filed a false report to collect a reward which would enable him to buy drugs. In 2000, both the former District Attorney who had prosecuted the case and the daughter of the slain police officer petitioned the Governor to grant clemency to Workman.
Despite this new information, the conviction and sentence were upheld; and at 2 a.m. Wednesday, May 7, 2007, Workman was executed by lethal injection. On the last day of his life, he was permitted to choose his final meal; and instead of choosing a sumptious last meal for himself, Workman requested that a vegetarian pizza be donated to any homeless person located near Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The prison declined his request, on the grounds that it was against policy to donate to charity.
As news of Workman's death reached the public later that morning, local citizens learned of his generosity in his last hours. First just a few, then more and more people began to order pizzas for delivery to local homeless shelters. One woman raised $1,200 to buy 150 pizzas, which were delivered to Nashville's Rescue Mission. The president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals read the story and sent another 15 veggie pizzas to the Rescue Mission. A Minneapolis radio station ordered 17 pizzas for delivery to Oasis Center, a Nashville shelter that helps some 260 teenagers in crisis. As the evening passed, still more pizzas were delivered to the center. And as the national networks reported the story, homeless shelters across America received vegetarian pizzas–a tribute to the soft-spoken man who wore a hand-sewn "What Would Jesus Do?" baseball cap.
Workman's life had ended; but his story lives on.  Also continuing is the controversy over capital punishment in these United States. 

Just last week, another prominent capital punishment case made the news, as the Justice Department announced that it would seek the death penalty against accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The prosecution has claimed that Tsarnaev and his older brother detonated pressure cooker bombs along the crowded street, where people had gathered to watch the Marathon runners.
Proponents of the death penalty frequently cite the need for social vengeance and protection of society as justifications for capital punishment. While the Catholic Church has traditionally agreed with this perspective, the Church now teaches that a life sentence is preferable wherever possible to enable repentance on the part of the condemned, as in Workman's case.
Capital punishment does nothing to restore the victims to life; but it does cut short the opportunity for the victim to repent and turn to God.  
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains (nos. 2266-2267):
– The State has a right and responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens, and to safeguard the common good.

– Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crime.  This penalty serves the purpose of redressing the disorder, and—as much as possible—should help in restoring the offender.

– In certain situations (such as during wartime), when capital punishment is the only practical way to defend human lives against the aggressor, society may impose the death penalty.

– However—and this is most important—if bloodless means are available to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means.

– In contemporary American society, when the option of secure imprisonment is available, cases of absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

The Church hopes with Christ that the sinner—even the very great sinner—will freely repent and be reconciled with Christ.  To forcibly take the life of a criminal deprives him of the opportunity for repentance, and the death penalty should be employed only as a last resort.

Kathy Schifferis Director of Publicity and Special Events for Ave Maria Radio. Her Patheos blog is Seasons of Grace.

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