While the eyes of the nation were focused on bulging chads and voting injustices in Florida, more than a thousand people gathered at a San Francisco hotel last weekend to develop a strategy to end the most disturbing injustice perpetrated by the government: state-sanctioned killing at prisons across the country.

The conference was the largest meeting ever of death-penalty opponents, the latest evidence that the country is awakening to the horrors of a system that premeditatingly kills people in the name of the state, despite now-common knowledge of the abuses, discrimination and unfairness of the system.

Every person there seemingly had their own story to tell about a case in their state: sleeping lawyers, lying prosecutors, innocent people freed by luck and innocent people still facing death.

The most compelling moments came as members of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation stood and talked about losing a father or mother or child to murder, then fighting against the execution of the person who committed the crime, then fighting to abolish the practice of killing to show that killing is wrong.

The system, as Sister Helen Prejan put it, multiplies the number of murder victims’ families by killing someone else’s son or daughter or husband or wife.

North Carolina was well represented at the conference. At Saturday’s award banquet, Steve Dear of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty was recognized for his work leading the statewide fight for a moratorium on executions, a moratorium endorsed most recently by the city councils in Greensboro and Charlotte.

There were workshops on the media, on youth organizing, on labor’s role in the struggle and on working in communities of color. If the conference had a shortcoming, it was the lack of involvement of national African-American organizations and the unexplained no-show of Congresswoman Maxine Waters at a breakfast.

But there were politicians there. Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold delivered the conference’s keynote address and talked about abolition as well as moratorium. A smattering of state legislators appeared at a panel discussion.

Usually at conferences of the left, it’s the community leaders or a passionate student or the combined energy of the gathering that remains in your mind days after the event is over.

Not this time. There were those compelling stories, those passionate activists, amazing young crusaders for justice and a palpable shared energy that felt overwhelming. But the most memorable moment of the four days came as Gov. George Ryan of Illinois spoke to the crowd.

Ryan, a conservative Republican and lifelong supporter of the death penalty, declared a statewide moratorium on executions in Illinois last year after watching innocent people freed from death row after being completely exonerated.

Ryan looks like a politician–white hair, conservative suit, a cautious manner. His last word from the podium made the weekend. Ryan said if we kept working on him, he, too, would soon be an abolitionist.

Ryan looks like a politician, but on capital punishment, unlike most leaders in North Carolina, he doesn’t look like one. I wish Jim Hunt and Mike Easley had been there.