Priest struggles with impending execution of nephew

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- The Rev. Gregory Gier has anointed sick strangers with oil and heard the last confessions of dying people.

But Gier will not be allowed to give the last rites to his only nephew, a 36-year-old death row inmate who could possibly be executed later this year.

Mark Fowler was sentenced to death for a 1985 triple slaying at a grocery store in Edmond and is in the final stage of appeals.

Unlike many death row inmates, Fowler's family, including Gier, has built strong emotional bonds with their condemned relative.

"It affects your self-concept," Gier said. "You are suddenly a criminal by association.

"You have created this person; this person came out of your home life; this person is your relative."

Gier questions the fairness of the death penalty process, including how juries are selected and the use of dueling expert witnesses.

Fowler and Billy Ray Fox were convicted of the shooting and stabbing deaths of Rick Cast, Chumpon Chaowasin and John Barrier at an IGA store. The two men were tried together, and evidence that could have been used during separate trials was not allowed.

Fowler and Fox accused each other of being the triggerman in the store, where Fox had stolen money and was fired from employment.

Still, Gier's family has seen the other side of murder -- the victims' side.

Fowler's 83-year-old paternal grandmother, Anne Laura Fowler, was raped and murdered in 1988 in Oklahoma City.

Robert Lee Miller Jr. was convicted of that crime and the rape and murder of 90-year-old Zelma Cutler and was given a death sentence in 1988. Ten years later, he was freed after DNA evidence showed that he did not commit the rapes. Prosecutors had linked semen at the scenes to Miller.

Gier said the officials who arrested and prosecuted Miller were also involved in Fowler's case.

"Now the same state is telling me it has the integrity to kill my nephew," Gier said. "Any human system has holes in it.

"I think the American system is good and the finest in the world. But I don't know if any human system can function with such significant integrity to claim the right to take another human life."

The release of Miller, the frustrations with the trial and appellate hearings for Fowler and the antideath-penalty stance of the Catholic Church have all reaffirmed Gier's own opposition to the state's ultimate punishment.

Even though he has doubts about the American criminal justice system, Gier said he has never asked a lawyer to get his nephew out of prison.

"I'm not happy my nephew was involved in these murders. At the same time, to reduce society to the level of this act is not redeeming to society. The execution is reducing society to a like act. It makes us all victims."

Gier attributes Fowler's involvement in the murders to the drug culture and the rejection from classmates and teachers he experienced while in school. Fowler's mother was a major force in his life by helping him overcome acute dyslexia.

After her death in 1980, Fowler started getting into legal trouble with drugs and theft, Gier said. His maternal grandparents also had died by 1985.

"At Mark's trial, it was the first time I was genuinely happy that they were all dead, because they did not have to go through this," Gier said. "This nephew never got into trouble until after my sister died."

After the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of Fowler and Fox in January, Gier said the family started preparing for the execution. Inmates are allowed to choose seven witnesses, and Fowler originally did not want his relatives to attend.

He has since changed his mind.

"He didn't want us to have to go through that," Gier said.

"He asked me, `How do you invite someone to your execution?' I suggested saying that you don't want to die alone.

"There will be people there looking at you with hate. You need somebody in the room to look at and know loves you. And we need to do that and be there."

Fowler's witnesses have been counseled on the execution procedures by the Rev. Brian Brooks of Okmulgee, who leads vigils outside the penitentiary and has witnessed an execution.

There are few support groups for family members of convicted felons and no known groups specifically for the relatives of condemned inmates.

"An execution creates another class of victims," said Steve Presson, a Norman defense attorney who specializes in capital cases. "It can be a miserable existence. The families are the ones who are punished. They have to live with the disgrace of having a family member executed."

Gier said he has been making more prison visitations, knowing that an execution date may be set as early as October or November.

While the debate rages about the merits of capital punishment, Gier falls back on his faith when thinking about his nephew's pending death.

"We know what he did here was wrong and he shouldn't have been involved," he said. "But the church is strong on forgiveness, reconciliation and confession. We do not believe you are damned to hell for eternity.

"That is not why Jesus suffered on the cross for us. That is not our faith."