Stephen Dear was in a hurry. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting was about to start, and he wanted to make a proposal. There would probably be a long, bureaucratic process, he reasoned, and the sooner he could present his idea to the board, the better. He wanted Carrboro to pass a resolution supporting a moratorium against executions.
Dear, executive director of the Chapel Hill-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, had agreed to help push a national effort to force a review of the death penalty in the United States. One campaign aims to generate public support by passing local resolutions in support of a moratorium on executions. Dear hoped liberal Carrboro might give consideration to the idea. At 7:30 p.m., Dear passed out his proposal to the board members. He said a few words, and Alderman Jacqueline Gist offered her support for the plan. By 7:40 p.m., Carrboro, by unanimous vote, became only the third municipality in the nation to pass the moratorium resolution. A surprised and gleeful Dear knew then he was on to something.
Since 1977, more than 600 people have been injected, electrocuted, shot, hung and gassed to death in U.S. prisons. Fifteen of those executions have been carried out in Raleigh’s Central Prison. Some polls indicate that public support for capital punishment is as high as 70 percent nationwide.
Until recently, it appeared that death penalty opponents had little reason for hopefulness. But the moratorium campaign has changed that. Across the nation, people are starting to re-examine how the death penalty is being administered–both at the federal level and in the 38 states that impose death sentences. Accounts of innocent people being sentenced to death have fueled the new debate, and charges are also being renewed that claim race and class–not the details of a particular murder–are the ultimate determinants of who is sentenced to die.
After Carrboro joined the moratorium effort on June 1, 1999, Chapel Hill (June 14), Durham (Aug. 2) and Orange County (Nov. 3) also passed resolutions. That groundswell of support in the Triangle has bolstered similar efforts around the nation.
“For most of last year, [North Carolina] had more local governments than the whole country put together,” Dear says. “Now that’s changed. Now there’s Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, Atlanta. All those city councils have passed moratorium resolutions, and I’m told that we set an example for them. So little old Carrboro can claim to have done a lot of good.”
In addition to governments, People of Faith has managed to get more than three dozen other groups, most of them religious bodies, to pass moratoriums. In April of this year, a day after Dear spoke on campus, the UNC-Charlotte student government also passed a moratorium resolution.
The goal of PFADP is to get 100 resolutions passed by the end of the year. During a recent program in Brevard, a small mountain town southwest of Asheville, Dear had plenty of good news to report to the more than 50 people who turned out to learn more about the moratorium.
“The tide is turning,” Dear told the group on May 18, the day the New Hampshire Senate voted to repeal the state’s death penalty statute. “Whatever you think about the death penalty, you’ve got to admit there’s change happening. We have great changes coming about in America.”
Dear, a zealous death penalty opponent who is a native of Elizabeth City, believes logic–and justice–are on his side. While a moratorium would be a temporary measure to give governments and politicians time to review capital punishment, Dear doesn’t believe the death penalty can be fixed to the point where it would be applied justly.
“The death penalty is not brain surgery; it’s not rocket science; it’s not molecular biology,” he says. “It’s brutal. It’s easy to oppose, and it’s easy to see the flaws in the system. It’s easy to give a talk about the death penalty because the numbers are on our side every way you look at it. It’s just not working the way anybody would want it to work.”
The numbers are compelling: Since 1970, more than 80 condemned inmates–four of them from North Carolina–were found to be innocent and freed from death rows. Ninety-eight percent of those facing capital charges in this state cannot afford to hire an attorney. Sixty-six percent of all North Carolina executions have been of African Americans, a group that constitutes less than 20 percent of the state’s population. More than 60 percent of the state’s 211 death row inmates are non-whites.
“What the moratorium asked for is not for an abolishment of the death penalty–you can be for a moratorium and for the death penalty,” Dear says. “All the moratorium says is that there should be no more executions–that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be arrested, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be trials–but there should be no more executions until the General Assembly can appoint a legislative study commission to study the death penalty, to report back, to make sure it’s working properly. And if it’s not, to make the recommendations we need to fix it–so that we can have a debate about whether we want it at all before executions start up again.”
Dear says the moratorium is a whole different way of approaching an issue nobody really wants to talk about.
“We’re killing people. It’s ugly, and politicians don’t want to discuss it. Religious leaders don’t want to discuss it, but it’s going on. With the moratorium, you don’t have to say that you’re in favor of the death penalty or opposed to the death penalty to talk about the fact that innocent people are being sent to death row in droves, that people who kill white people are those who get the death penalty, that people who are rejected by our society in general are those who get the death penalty.”
Dear points out that the moratorium effort is getting its biggest boosts from unlikely sources. In 1997, the American Bar Association kicked things off when it adopted a resolution calling for a nationwide halt to executions. Earlier this year, Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan ordered a suspension of executions, citing his state’s “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.” Recently, conservatives Pat Robertson and George Will–both ardent death penalty supporters–added their names to those backing a moratorium.
After attending a national conference on the death penalty in Texas in the spring of 1999, Dear came back ready to promote the moratorium. Initially, Dear says, there wasn’t a lot of excitement about the initiative. To get the effort underway in North Carolina, Dear sent out 500 letters with moratorium resolutions to 25 cities and scores of church congregations.
“Almost all of them threw it away,” Dear admits. But the resolution proposal was not thrown away by Bishop Cannon Clifton Daniel III of the Episcopal Diocese of East North Carolina, which passed the moratorium only on the basis of Dear’s letter. A year later, support for a moratorium is growing, but there are still roadblocks.
A barrier to the national moratorium effort is the fact that only two states, North Carolina and California, have people who are paid to work to abolish the death penalty. Other states have groups, but most are low-budget, skeletal operations run out of individuals’ homes. Whenever he attends a national death penalty conference, Dear says he urges other states to form groups and raise money to pay staff members. Seed money for PFADP came from the N.C. Council of Churches, but Dear believes most states could support a self-sustaining anti-death penalty group.
“We are a model group just because we exist,” Dear says.
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is the second statewide advocacy group Dear has led. He spent five years in the early 1990s as executive director of the N.C. Rural Communities Assistance Project, a group that primarily helps small communities with water and wastewater issues.
When he took over the reigns of PFADP in 1997, the group was financially strapped. Initially, Dear spent time raising money and organizing over the phone. Now, with PFADP in a better financial situation, Dear spends more time on the road.
And given the number of people currently on North Carolina’s death row, Dear says he could use help. Moratorium efforts basically had to be put on hold last fall when five death row inmates in North Carolina had execution dates set. Instead of organizing moratorium workshops, Dear was orchestrating vigils, press conferences and meetings with the governor in order to save the lives of those scheduled to die.
Surprisingly, there have been no executions–or even execution dates–set in 2000. That’s not the case nationally, where the numbers are likely to surpass the 98 executions carried out around the country in 1999.
As the primary organizer of the North Carolina moratorium campaign, Dear has been working to get towns and cities throughout the state to start local PFADP groups with an emphasis on the moratorium effort. So far, groups have been or are being established in Wilmington, Asheville, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Wake County, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Warren County. Dear also hopes to get moratoriums passed in the eastern part of the state, the region that sends the most people to death row.
“We’ve got a network of people we’re building up,” Dear says.
The moratorium effort got a financial boost when Dear secured a $25,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation–that organization’s first-ever grant to a group working to abolish the death penalty. To further bolster the campaign, Dear brought Dead Man Walking author and death penalty foe Sister Helen Prejean to Raleigh in March.
Despite growing support for a moratorium, public support for the death penalty remains strong. But the numbers are falling. A recent study released by the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication showed 65 percent of North Carolinians favored the death penalty, down from a high of 76 percent in 1992. Just 19 percent opposed it.
Working for a moratorium brings new people into the effort, Dear says. “People come out of the woodwork. You become really surprised at the new allies you find. There were people from the Durham City Council who were speaking eloquently and beautifully about injustice and the need for a moratorium, and we weren’t expecting that.”
Building a statewide moratorium movement requires simple grassroots measures, Dear says. “It’s a matter of asking, finding politicians and church members who will listen. And there are many of them. It’s a matter of building a relationship with them and asking them to do this. It’s as simple as that in a way. You don’t have to convince every North Carolinian. You don’t have to go out and get 7 million people to oppose the death penalty.
“The question really is, in the end: ‘Can this system be fixed?’ I would say, ‘No.’ We have racial and class biases deeply embedded in our culture. … We cannot remove our justice system from the biases of the culture in which it is based. The question with the moratorium is, ‘Are we going to be able to fix our system?’ And many people seem to believe that we will be able to, and I’m all for trying, because that will be an improvement over what we have.
“You have to realize ultimately, that our system is never going to be fair enough to avoid killing innocent people or killing people who should have received lesser sentences.”
For more information on ways to work toward a moratorium on executions, call People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, 933-7567, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.