May 29, 1996

Deathrow Inmate Finds Transformation Through Buddhism


TUCKER, Ark. -- William Frank Parker, a double murderer with a nasty habit of slugging corrections officers, was doing time in solitary confinement one day when he asked a prison guard, somewhat impolitely, for a Bible to read.

The guard, his sense of humor stimulated by Parker's insolence, opened the cell door, tossed in a copy of a Buddhist tract known as the Dhammapada, and slammed the door shut. Parker, with little else to do, began to read.

Seven years later, Parker is the only practicing Buddhist in the Arkansas prison system. And as his appointment with a lethal injection approaches, he has become a cause celebre among Buddhists worldwide. Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama himself joined the hundreds of clemency-seeking correspondents who have written Gov. Jim Guy Tucker on Parker's behalf.

Death row conversions are common, but Parker's seems to be different. His Buddhism, he says, concerns neither salvation nor repentance. It is less a religion than "a transformational psychology" that guides practitioners toward inner peace, a rather scarce commodity on death row.

"The Buddha said the greatest of all footprints is that of the elephant, and the greatest meditation is that on death," Parker said in an interview at the Maximum Security Unit here, the site of Arkansas's death row. "I needed to come to grips with death. I was having trouble with it. Buddhism teaches that it's the big lie, the big delusion.

"Now I know," he said, pointing to his chest, "that this vehicle will die. But what's in it moves on."

Indeed, the 41-year-old Parker has forbidden his lawyer, Jeffrey M. Rosenzweig of Little Rock, to file additional appeals of his convictions for killing his former wife's parents and wounding his former wife and a police officer in 1984. While he would not object to a commutation of his sentence to life without parole, he says he has no interest in delays of an inevitable execution.

"He has psychologically steeled himself to be executed and has reached a peace of some sort about it and is not sure he wants to disturb that," Rosenzweig said.

Until a last-minute unrequested reprieve bought him some time, Parker's execution had been scheduled for Wednesday. On Friday, Tucker delayed the execution until July 11 so the U.S. Supreme Court would have time to judge the constitutionality of a new federal law that limits appeals by condemned prisoners.

Many of the clemency pleas written to Tucker, whether from Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka or Zen masters in Honolulu, cite Parker's rededication of his life to Buddhism. His conversion has been so convincing that many inmates and guards call him by the Buddhist name he assumed several years ago, Si-Fu, which means "master" or "teacher." When he approaches, some bow, their hands clasped in front of their faces.

Each night, he waits for the rantings of the condemned to fade and then rises at 3 a.m. to meditate in silence for 40 minutes. His cell has become a temple, complete with a brass statuette of the Buddha and, when the warden allows, burning candles and incense. During crackdowns on such possessions, he makes do. "I can make candles," Parker said. "I can make incense."

He has read dozens of books on Buddhist wisdom and laces his conversations with references to Zen masters, the Bible and Carl Jung. He has learned to fashion intricate origami flowers and birdcages from paper supplied by his mother. He has shaved his head in devotion and wears a ritualistic black apron, called a rakusu, over his prison whites. During a recent interview, he wrapped brown prayer beads around his hands while silver cuffs shackled his ankles.

"He has the most impressive understanding of Buddhism of any inmate I've ever met," said Kobutsu Shindo (also known as Kevin C. Malone), a Buddhist priest who ministers to inmates at the Sing Sing Correctional Institute in New York and who is leading the campaign to spare Parker. "And he has as deep an understanding as many Western Buddhist teachers. The man belongs in a monastery, not on death row."

Even Parker's mother, Janie N. Parker of Bastrop, Texas, who has had reasons for skepticism about her son over the years, said she was convinced of the depth of his conversion. "I thought it might be a fake at first because so many of them get jailhouse religion," Mrs. Parker said. "But the longer I talked to him, the more I realized he was into it."

Parker said the religion seized him when he read Buddha's teachings that impure thoughts led to trouble. "I said, This is me here," he recalled. "I knew that in my own crimes, my own history, I had acted with an impure heart."

His education has not always been easy. When a prison chaplain refused his orders of Buddhist books, Parker threatened to throw him over a second-floor railing. "I know it was anti-Buddhist to say that," Parker said, adding, "Now I don't have any problems."

On Nov. 5, 1984, Parker, high on liquor and cocaine and desperately unhappy about his recent divorce, killed his former in-laws at their house in Rogers, Ark., and later abducted his former wife. For reasons he says he cannot now fathom, he took her to a police station where he shot her and wounded a policeman three times before being disarmed. His lawyer's efforts to appeal the convictions, mostly on the ground of double jeopardy, have been unsuccessful.

At a state clemency board hearing earlier this month, a prosecutor said that Parker once joked that he had turned the Warrens into "worm food." His former wife, Pamela Warren Bratcher, told board members, "Frankie Parker has been given 111/2 more years than he gave my parents." The board voted 5 to 0 to advise the governor not to commute Parker's sentence.

Parker said that he was remorseful, but that he had not written Ms. Bratcher because any apology would be inadequate. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "Say, 'Sorry I killed your Mom and Dad?' "

But he also mocks Ms. Bratcher's devotion to his demise. "My death is her life," he said, "and when I die, she's going to be lost."

On Saturday, Kobutsu Shindo visited Parker and performed a jukai ceremony, a high-level initiation into Buddhism during which Parker received a new name, Ju San, or "mountain of everlasting life." An abbot's inscription on a certificate encouraged him to "depart with dignity like a mountain, trusting that his life is everlasting."

Parker said he would do so.

"My friends on death row used to say, 'If you think those Buddhists are going to get you off death row, forget it. Those Buddhists love death,' " he said. "I don't want to die. But I'm ready. In fact, I'm sort of looking forward to the journey. I've studied it for so long."

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