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June, 2024

The Long and Winding Road: TADP Board Member Reverend Timothy Holton’s Journey to Healing

(Reverend Timothy Holton is a surviving family member of four murder victims and is the cousin of Daryl Holton, a man executed in Tennessee. These are excerpts from a recent presentation prepared by Reverend Holton.)

Throughout the process of collecting my thoughts to share, I have been pursued by the words of one of my favorite hymns: Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night, and I will go Lord, if you lead me…well, here’s the deal: when you say those words and take that “YES” step toward God, it turns out what you agree to might not look like what you expected.

For me, this all began on November 30, 1997. I was a 17-year-old senior at Moore County High School in Lynchburg, cramming for midterms and living my best teenage life. That rainy Sunday afternoon, in the neighboring town of Shelbyville (where I now live), my cousin Daryl Holton used a military style rifle and took the lives of his four children: Stephen was 12, Brent was 10, Eric was 6, and Kayla was 4.  A few days later, I served as pallbearer and carried each of their small, white caskets to their final resting place in the little cemetery in rural Bedford County.  A little more than a year and a half later, Daryl’s trial concluded with four murder convictions, and a death sentence.  Almost 10 years later, at 1:00 am on September 12, 2007, Daryl was seated in Tennessee’s electric chair.  Twenty-five minutes later, he was pronounced dead. My life’s path changed dramatically, fracturing me in two parts: mourning the murder of my cousins, and grieving their murderer; all family whom I loved. I yearned deeply for an internal reconciliation that I believed, and finally decided, would never come.

(Reverend Stacy Harwell-Dye of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville invited Reverend Holton to attend the TADP vigil on the evening of Billy Ray Irick’s execution in 2018. Reverend Holton then became actively involved with TADP and joined the Board of Directors. He also joined the Visitation on Death Row program to become a visitor on death row. In the following excerpt, he shares an experience that happened during his orientation to the program when he was taken on a tour of Unit 2.)

Overwhelmed, overstimulated, and trying to manage an unruly bouquet of emotions, I noticed someone moving toward the corner of the room where I stood…not just moving toward my corner of the room, but one of the inmates moving directly, toward, me.  What could he want?  When he was within arm’s length, he stuck out his hand, and with a warm smile and comforting voice he said “Hi, I’m Terry King, you must be Tim Holton, Daryl’s cousin. Daryl was my neighbor while he was here, most all of us knew him actually. Would you like to see his cell, where he lived?” I can’t recall if I even responded, but suddenly I was standing at cell C-206, where my cousin spent the last 10 years of his life; where he ate, slept, where he lived.

In that moment, it felt like time stood still, and I experienced a peace beyond anything I had ever experienced before wash over me.  All of the trauma, all of the guilt, all of the wounds I had carried for all of those years about Daryl, and Stephen, and Brent, and Eric, and Kayla, they all bubbled up from the depths of my mind and body, and as they rose they changed, and the healing I thought impossible, instantly became more than just possible, it became reality, and it happened in cell C-206, on death row. 

Now as a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, every week I make my way down the walkways lined with razor wire and through the large heavy doors that still occasionally startle me when they slam shut, to be with my friends in Unit 2.  We talk, we pray, we laugh, we support and nurture one another, and we meet to wrestle with theology and grow in God. 

The Spirit’s reaching into one of the darkest and most painful experiences in my life and unbinding the grace within it; the Spirit’s reaching across our connection to straighten the twisted and tangled pathway to this ministry, the Spirit’s reaching through Terry King’s handshake transforming painful trauma into healed peace and softened empathy; the Spirit’s reaching through my spouse Jim who doesn’t always understand or share my fearless nature in this work but loves me unconditionally and continually picks me up and lends me his strength when this hard work becomes more than one person can bear; and the Spirit’s continual defiance of the isolating bounds of razor wire walkways and locked solid metal doors to meet a group of condemned men who are my friends, my family, my people, and to dwell with them in a community overflowing with boundless love, for that, for all of that, I say, thanks be to God.

What Do China, Iran, Saudia Arabia, Somalia, the U.S., and Iraq Have in Common?

According to Amnesty International’s Global Report 2023, these nations carried out the most executions last year.

China is estimated to execute thousands of people annually but classifies the number as a state secret. We can safely assume then that China is the world’s leading executioner.

Excluding China, of the known number of executions in 2023, Iran came in first with at least 853 executions, accounting for 74% of the global total. Saudi Arabia placed second with 172 executions accounting for 15%. Somalia followed with at least 38 executions. The United States came in fourth at 24 executions, and Iraq carried out at least 16. 

The number of executions carried out by these nations and a handful of others, 1153, is the highest number of executions since 2015, but the spike can mostly be attributed to 48% rise in executions in Iran.

If the fact that the U.S. keeps company with nations that our government regularly condemns for human right violations and oppressive policies makes you uncomfortable, then good. It should. The U.S. position on the death penalty impugns our nation’s credibility, particularly as our government chastises others nations for their human rights records while continuing a policy that no other western, industrialized nation employs.

Now for some good news: Only 16 countries carried out executions in 2023. This represents the lowest number of countries executing on record. Even if the U.S. is among this number, it is encouraging that more nations are moving away from the death penalty. In fact, the parliaments of Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Zimbabwe all considered abolition bills last year.

Our nation can and must do better. It’s time to keep better company.

Read more of Amnesty’s report.