During my quarter-century of travelling closely to the U.S. death penalty, I have consistently observed the harm done to innocent third parties by unnecessary government killing. Only recently have scholars and criminal justice professionals begun broadly studying this phenomenon.
In an Op-ed published in South Carolina’s statewide newspaper on June 6, 2021, Ron McAndrew, the former warden of Florida’s execution prison, pleads with South Carolina politicians and government officials to cancel their plans to revive that state’s executions. The reason? Because of the harm executions cause to the officers and employees who are present and carry out unnecessary state killings.[i] McAndrew speaks from experience in describing his nightmares and PTSD from supervising Florida executions during his tenure.
Even to this day, almost no one discusses the harm caused to pastoral advisors and counselors by unnecessary state killing. The meaningless glib response to such human damage from pro-death politicians is usually a sarcastic “if it bothers you, get a different job.” In other words, let somebody else deal with the trauma of politically motivated state killing.
As for myself, by 2016 — after 18 years as a pastoral advisor on Florida’s death row — it is clear that my time in this work should be wrapped up soon. At that point, I have been on deathwatch more than 30 times and have witnessed 15 executions, including Florida’s infamous botched lethal injection less than two weeks before Christmas of 2006. The Florida Bishops agree to support a national search for my replacement and to fund the new position with a salary and benefits.
The man selected is a remarkable candidate. In fact, remarkable doesn’t quite say it. Everyone claims to be an individual. But in Deacon Jason, his uniqueness, his spontaneity, his intensity, his savoring of life, is an art form.
Whether he is downing oysters and beer with his adult sons or recounting tales of remodeling the home fireplace with spouse Linda, his whole being is engaged. No one can tell stories better than Jason, and he is always finding a way to make everyone smile — even laugh.
He is a consummate salesman. When I first meet him, he is preparing to move from selling commercial products to selling eternal ones.
Almost 30 years earlier, Jason reluctantly agreed to help with a bible study at a jail in Georgia. He wasn’t particularly enamored with the idea of going inside a jail, but he went. He comes away from that experience infected with a new mission — to bring the hope and Good News of Jesus Christ to men and women in prison.
When I meet him in 2010, Jason comes to my part-time office at Christian Healing Ministries to discuss with me his pastoral project for the diaconate program. We fashion a program for families with a loved one in prison. Jason runs that program at St. Joseph’s, his home parish in Mandarin Jacksonville, in the Cody Center.
After his ordination to the permanent diaconate, I accompany Jason to his first Eucharistic service in prison as a deacon. It is celebrated at North Florida Reception Center, a large prison in Lake Butler, Florida. I am amazed at the impact that his enthusiasm and intensity have on the men in that service. Nobody cuts through pretense faster than an inmate. And these inmates love him. Deacon Jason joins our volunteer group for death row and solitary confinement about that same time.
Then, in 2015, Jason starts shadowing me at the Death Row Prisons — FSP and UCI — in order to assume the responsibilities as Catholic chaplain for death row and long-term solitary confinement inmates. He is a natural pick. Jason has a lot of prison ministry under his belt, and he is a known commodity to the prison chaplains because for many years he has been involved in Kairos, a semiannual retreat for inmates.
At that time, there is also a seminarian from Tallahassee who wants to be involved in death row ministry. Now that seminarian is Fr. Dustin. For an entire summer, Deacon Jason, Seminarian Dustin, and I work out of my house in MacClenny doing cell-front ministry together in death row and solitary confinement.
It just so happens that the waitresses and female officers in Macclenny and Raiford are very impressed with how much Deacon Jason resembles Magnum PI — Tom Selleck. They call Jason Magnum PI.
I remember one morning Deacon Jason, Seminarian Dustin, and I are at breakfast at Sixth Street Restaurant in Macclenny. One of the younger waitresses approaches our table.
“Do you know you look like Tom Selleck?” she asks, obviously speaking to Deacon Jason.
“Well, that’s not exactly correct,” Jason responds, grinning ear to ear, “Actually, Tom Selleck looks like me!”
The employees at the Dollar General Discount Store on Highway 121, where Jason stops every morning on the way from Macclenny to the death row prisons to get a “smooth cigar,” have another name for him — Mr. Smooth.
Jason is a drummer — not just as an activity, but in his very being. His friends teach me that the correct term is percussionist. Jason is always exactly who he is — whether inside the prisons or outside. He doesn’t put on a persona for anyone or anyplace. What you see is who he is.
Once, early on in his shadowing me on death row, we start at opposite ends of the corridor. There are about 15 cells, all on one side. We are always under audio and visual surveillance at cell-front on death row — there is always somebody in a control room watching and listening.
But on that particular day, the sergeant comes on the corridor and motions me to the quarterdeck where the control room is.
“She wants to speak to you,” the sergeant points me to the officer frowning at the monitors inside the control room.
“Yes, ma’am,” I greet her as I step inside her space in the wing control room. “How can I help?”
“What is he doing?” she asks, pointing to the screen that shows Jason’s end of the corridor where he is talking to an inmate while rhythmically tapping his fingers against the bars of the inmate’s cell door.
“He’s drumming, ma’am. He’s always drumming with his fingers.”
“But there’s no music playing!” barks the sergeant from behind me. “How can he be drumming if there’s no music playing?”
“He brings the music with him,” I said. “The music is always playing inside of him.”
So how do I sum up Deacon Jason Roy, an enigma we all know and love?
An AME preacher in Americus, GA said it like this: “One day, every one of us is gonna die. And after the church thing, however they do it at your church, all the people are going to sit down at the church hall, and over fried chicken and potato salad, they all gonna talk about what you did in your life. Not what you said — talk is cheap and don’t mean nuthin’. They gonna be talking about what you DID!”
So let us walk through the last five days of Deacon Jason’s life and look at what he did.
He talked to his son Chris on the phone every day, just like always. And he saw his wife Linda and younger son Bryan at home every day, coming and going.
On Saturday evening December 17, 2016, he and Linda were at the Diocesan Retreat Center Marywood for the Christmas gathering of the deacons and their wives.
Sunday, December 18, he is at UCI in the Chapel for the Christmas Mass, where over 50 inmates are in attendance, and many more (the death row inmates) watch from their cells via close-circuit TV. We have Bishop Estévez, Fr. Slavek, and Seminarian Dustin Feddon. Deacon Ken, who would pass away of complications from COVID in 2020, is also there. Afterwards, there is a Catholic Christmas gathering in the Chapel yard. Deacon Jason hugs everyone — no exceptions.
As he makes the rounds in the Chapel yard, he actually forgets he has already hugged me and bear hugs me a second time.
“This is getting serious,” I tease him, “and we’re on camera.”
“In that case, how about another hug,” he laughs, as I wave him off. But Deacon Jason couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tease me.
“You know, Brother Dale,” his eyes twinkle in a tell that he was about to hit me with a one-liner. “The reason you’re stepping down and I’m stepping up is because I’m much younger than you.”
“So, what?” I feign annoyance. “That’s not exactly prime-time news!”
“Well, when the time comes, I’ll probably be the deacon speaking at your funeral. And I’m going to tell them all...”
“If you say anything to embarrass me at my funeral, I promise I’ll come back and haunt you!”
We both laugh heartily, but Deacon Jason is not done with me yet.
“Well in that case,” he goads me with a pointed finger, “I’ll just talk about your ancestors from Italy.”
“If you say anything to embarrass my ancestors at my funeral, my mom will come back and haunt you! And believe me, you do not want to mess with my mom!”
We are both laughing so hard that we have to stop for a break on the cement bench by Gate 5 at the entrance to the death row tunnel.
In that moment of levity, neither one of us could have imagined that in a matter of days, before New Year’s, I would be standing in St. Joseph Catholic Church in front of over 1200 people eulogizing my dear friend Deacon Jason at his funeral.
On Monday, December 19, the day after our exchange of guffaws, Jason handles cell front rounds in solitary confinement. That activity is hard to describe. Many of our volunteers who have been coming for years go cell to cell to the solid steel doors of the 2500 men in solitary confinement at these prisons. It is ministry through a hole in the door. Usually, it involves kneeling on the concrete floor. This is what Jason did all day the Monday before Christmas at UCI.
Tuesday, he does the same thing at FSP.
On Wednesday, December 21, Jason runs errands for Linda and then heads back to UCI at 4:30 pm to go with me to conduct a Christmas program for about 100 inmates in the Faith and Character-Based dorm. Passing out Italian Christmas candy and playing a Gaither Trio video of a Christmas concert in South Africa. I was sitting next to Jason, the percussionist, who was drumming away on his chair through every single song. We leave there at 9 pm to head home.
Thursday morning December 22 at 8 am he is back at UCI to pass out Italian Christmas candy to the officers and staff. In the afternoon, he does the same thing at FSP.
Thursday night — well Friday morning December 23 actually — around 2:30 am Jason gets a telephone call from his son Chris. Chris and his wife, Risa, are at the hospital. Risa is in labor. Chris insists that his dad wait until the labour is further along before coming to the hospital. But Jason is not doing it that way! At 3:30 am Deacon Jason greets his son and daughter-in-law in their hospital room. Jason is beaming.
This will be his and Linda’s first grandchild. When Jason calls me Friday late in the afternoon, he is on cloud nine describing the joy of holding his new granddaughter in his arms. His exuberance is only dampened by the sudden intrusion of a pending execution.
A death row inmate’s stay of execution has just been lifted by the Florida Supreme Court before taking their Christmas break. The man’s deathwatch will now proceed. Jason has just sent an email to the execution prison requesting a deathwatch pastoral appointment with the condemned for December 27.
Deacon Jason had handled his first execution as a death house spiritual advisor a year earlier in October of 2015. He was amazed at the toll it took on him physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
“Witnessing the unnecessary killing of a person you care about is like watching the murder of a friend,” he had said to me at that time. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”
“You don’t get over it, Bro. You just learn to live with it, like walking with a limp.”
Christmas Eve December 24 — Deacon Jason was scheduled to assist at the 7:30 pm and Midnight Masses at his home Church of St. Joseph’s on Christmas Eve. But he would not be there.
During the night of the 23 and early the morning of Christmas Eve, while sleeping peacefully, Deacon Jason is called home to the Lord by a massive heart attack, called a “widowmaker”.
I receive the call from his wife Linda late afternoon on Christmas Eve. By dinner time, I have obtained institutional approval to substitute for Deacon Jason at the December 27 death house pastoral. On my 64 birthday, the day after Christmas, Susan drives me from Tallahassee to the execution prison where we confirm all the details of this deathwatch with the administration.
On the 30 of December, after a quick trip home to Tallahassee, Susan is driving me again back to Jacksonville. This time to my Hampton Inn for the New Years' Eve funeral for Deacon Jason. Over 1200 people are in attendance to honor and bid farewell to this remarkable man.
It's a fact that Christmas death warrants and Christmas executions are not unusual in Florida. But I believe this death warrant did tremendous collateral damage by taking our dear friend and brother, Deacon Jason, before his time.
[i] Ron McAndrew, “South Carolina death penalty is traumatic for those who have to carry out executions”, The State (June 6, 2021).