Susan Johnson bends to light one of the 352 candles in St. Patrick Catholic Church, located at 500 NE 16th Ave., on Thursday night. The candles, which represented the 352 inmates on death row in Florida, were part of the church’s Cities for Life Day event.

In 1974, Kathy Dillon was in her ninth-grade science class when her father was murdered.

After being taken home from school in the back of a cop car, she learned her father — a New York State Trooper — had been shot and killed in the line of duty during a routine traffic stop.

The district attorney continuously reassured Dillon’s family the man who shot their father would be sentenced to death. For Dillon, the looming prospect of the death penalty didn’t put her mind at ease.

“I’ll always miss my father,” she said. “An execution won’t change that.”

The man who shot her father was sentenced to 25 years to life. Dillon believes if he were executed, she would’ve suffered even greater trauma.

Dillon and about 25 others gathered at St. Patrick Catholic Church, located at 500 NE 16th Ave., on Thursday evening to discuss ending the death penalty as part of a national event called Cities for Life Day, which is held every year on Nov. 30. This was the first Cities for Life event celebrated in Gainesville, said Lowell Hecht, a deacon at St. Patrick Catholic Church. The event included speeches from Dillon; Ron Wright Jr., an exoneree from death row in Florida; Dr. Joseph Thornton, a physician who worked with death row inmates; and Sonya Rudenstine, a Gainesville attorney who works with death row inmates. After the speeches, audience members lit 352 candles on the steps of the church’s lectern to represent the 352 inmates on Florida’s death row, Hecht said.

“The goal with this event was to try to get some grassroots support for it,” he said. “It’s very important. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Hecht invited Catholic parishes in Florida and some non-Catholic churches to ring their bells at 7:30 p.m. in solidarity with St. Patrick. He said he was unsure how many participated. About 2,100 cities around the world held Cities for Life Day events, Hecht said.

Susan Johnson, a Gainesville resident, attended the event to show her support for abolishing the death penalty. Her friend’s son has been on Florida’s death row for about 17 years.

“I knew there was goodness in him, because I had known him as a boy,” she said.

The outcome looks bleak for him, but she hopes one day she’ll see an end to state-sanctioned deaths, she said. Johnson believes people overlook the pain the death penalty causes the family of death row inmates.

“I’ve seen how the families of the convicted become secondary victims in these situations and the trauma that it creates in their lives,” she said.


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