Shocked by grace: A visit to death row

Much of the story is hard to recall, but certain details are engraved in my memory, stamped right into me. I was a new pastor interested in writing, so when a magazine asked for an interview of a death row inmate, I jumped at the chance. I was asked to visit an Ohio prisoner named David Steffen. In the 1970s David had been convicted of brutally murdering a teenaged girl. Twenty-one years later, at the time of my visit, he was still awaiting execution.

I had never been in a prison before. It was raining, and guards drove me through the empty, gloomy yard on a golf cart. I was frightened. It was a barren place. The loops in the concertina wire looked vicious. One guard drank a can of Mountain Dew as we drove. She didn’t speak, just stared at me malevolently. When we arrived on death row I walked through several gates and checkpoints before meeting with David in a classic government room with fluorescent lights and gray plastic furniture. Death row looked more like the DMV than a dungeon and was all the more menacing as a result.

The killer looked younger than his age. His skin was smooth, and he wore his brown hair short. His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses, the kind hipsters wear. We sat across from each other at a small table. As we spoke he kept his eyes on my hands—ready, it seemed, to react defensively if I picked up my pen or reached for a bottle of water. But aside from this wariness he was remarkably peaceful for a man living under such intense pressure.