One by one they walked up to the microphone. Sisters, brothers, a daughter, a son, nieces, nephews, cousins and family friends. Most were holding hand-lettered placards, each one bearing a photocopied picture of Henry Lee Hunt.
The crowd of more than 30 people had traveled to Raleigh from Robeson County on Sept. 9 to stand across the street from the Governor’s mansion, home of Mike Easley, the former attorney general who–with the stroke of a pen–could have spared the life of Hunt, 58, a Native American who was sentenced to death in Robeson County for the 1984 murders of Jackie Ransom and Larry Jones.
Although Hunt’s appeals were essentially exhausted, family members standing on the sidewalk as the sun set still held out hope that Easley would grant clemency to a man who claimed his innocence for almost two decades.
Each person who took the microphone presented an impassioned plea to Easley, speaking as if the governor were standing there with them. Many cried. A state capitol police officer said Easley was not at home.
R.D. Hunt, one of Henry’s 13 siblings, said Henry, the oldest boy, “was Daddy’s pride and joy.”
Henry got “a raw deal,” R.D. said. “If there’s any doubt, it’s not supposed to happen, and there’s too many doubts in this. Gov. Easley, we love our brother, and I hope you love your family, and we love our God; we support God and our brother, and we beg you please–clemency, if nothing else.
“Just think about it. I don’t know how you can sleep at night knowing this is fixin’ to happen. …”
Hunt’s sister, Annie Ruth Wassil, said: “We’re here today to beg for our brother’s life. I believe my brother is innocent, and I believe my brother deserves to come out of prison and be with his family. He has never been able to touch not one of his grandchildren. We haven’t been able to touch our brother in 19 years, and I plead with you today. If you have any heart at all, search that heart, and give our brother clemency. Thank you very much.”
Sharon Hunt, Henry’s daughter, was 13 years old when her father went to prison.
“The state has taken 19 years away from me,” she said. “I miss him and I love him and I just want him back.”
Tears flowed when Henry’s grandson, 11-year-old Donovan Hunt, spoke: “Gov. Easley, I think my grandpa should be set free, and all I want to do is touch him and hug him.”
Thursday night, with the execution just hours away, death penalty opponents gathered for a prayer service at N.C. State’s Doggett Catholic Student Center. Hunt, who had converted to Catholicism while in prison, asked his priest, Father Jude Siciliano, to read from Psalm 23. The service also included prayers and rituals from the Native American tradition.
“It’s dark in our world out there tonight,” Siciliano said. “Our country is stuck in darkness, and we are too quick in this nation to try solve problems using violence; a quick solution.
“That’s not God’s way. It’s dark out tonight for Henry, his family, his friends. Tonight, an act of the state will add to the darkness of the world,” he said. “We light candles and flames against the darkness, and we say no with these candles … What’s happening tonight is unjust. What’s happening tonight is violence.”
Shortly before 10 p.m., Hunt’s family members, many of whom were holding candles in front of Central Prison, were summoned to the visitor center to be told that Easley had denied clemency. The grief-stricken cries of several family members carried up to Western Boulevard.
J.R. Ghosthorse, a Native American, had come from Asheville, to lead a drum circle and Native American prayer songs for Hunt and his family. While the execution was taking place, Ghosthorse sang two songs, one a story of two young golden eagles “because the eagle flies the highest, getting closest to the Spirit,” he said. The other was “a song of thanksgiving for the Spirit being here with us.”
Around the time Hunt was pronounced dead, Ghosthorse spoke a prayer: “Hear our prayers grandfather. We ask that you kindly and gently take this brother up to meet his relatives, grandfather. Watch over and protect his family, grandfather, and help them with their time of grief.”
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt witnessed the execution. Speaking on behalf of the victims’ families, Britt said: “Their day of justice arrived at 2:17 this morning … You can truly say that justice has been served in this case.”
Also witnessing the execution was Siciliano, who sat close enough in the witness room to mouth words with Hunt, the man he had visited scores of times. Siciliano said he was struck by the hospital-like environment inside the death chamber, as if someone was being cared for. Hunt was tucked in on the gurney under starched white bed linens, he said.
“It was so antiseptic,” Siciliano said. “They kill a man. They make it look so neat.”
In his final statement to prison officials, Hunt said simply: “It’s a good day to die.”