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Killer Sues to Take Part in Indian Ceremony Before His Execution

Prison: Darrell Rich says request for religious sweat lodge ritual was refused. No inmates are allowed out of death row for security reasons, official responds.

March 10, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Death row inmate Darrell Keith Rich, scheduled to die by lethal injection next week, has filed a federal lawsuit complaining that San Quentin prison officials will not allow him to participate in a Native American sweat lodge ceremony before his execution.

Rich, convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering four women and girls in Shasta County in 1978, says he is part Cherokee and has adopted the name Young Elk.

"The sweat lodge ceremony is the only way for Young Elk to make amends to his creator for wrongs committed and give thanks for blessings received," Rich's attorneys wrote in the U.S. District Court lawsuit, filed Wednesday in San Francisco.

"If Young Elk is not able to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony . . . his spirit would be unable to successfully cross over from this world to the spirit world."

The suit also contends that prison officials will not allow two Native American spiritual advisors to counsel Rich immediately before his execution, set for just after midnight March 15.

State corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach said Rich will be allowed to keep his medicine bag and two sacred feathers until he enters the execution chamber and will be permitted to talk to his spiritual advisors until the execution preparations begin.

But he cannot leave death row to go to the prison sweat lodge. "No one is allowed to leave their [death row] housing unit, including Mr. Rich," Bach said. "This is for safety and security reasons."

Every state prison has a sweat lodge made of willow poles in which Native American inmates can go through purification ceremonies. Water is poured on hot rocks to heat the lodge and the inmates are led in prayer and song by a medicine man or spiritual advisor over a period of several hours.

Rich, 45, was adopted shortly after birth and records indicate that his natural parents were Indian and Irish, said James S. Thomson, one of Rich's attorneys. "He's Cherokee on both sides."

A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Monday, Thomson said. He also has asked Gov. Gray Davis to grant Rich clemency and commute the death sentence, a request that Davis has not yet acted on.

Rich, who has spent nearly two decades on death row, confessed to the murders but argued during his 1980 trial that he was legally insane at the time of the crimes. A jury rejected that defense and a corrections spokesman said that a recent psychological evaluation--required before executions--found Rich mentally competent.

Rich's attorneys have said their client deserves clemency because he is remorseful, has been well-behaved in prison and no longer poses a threat to society.

He is so contrite, Thomson said, that he has agreed not to be buried in the same Northern California cemetery as one of his victims, Annette Lynn Selix, the 11-year-old girl he threw off a bridge.

Rich's adoptive mother, now dead, purchased an adjoining plot so that her son could be buried next to her in Cottonwood Cemetery.

Protests erupted when the burial plans recently became public and Rich has since directed the cemetery to disinter his mother's remains and bury the two of them at another location, according to the cemetery manager.

"He did it completely out of respect for the victim's family," Thomson said. "It's the prime example of the remorse he feels for what occurred."

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