Death penalty opponents from across North Carolina are set to arrive at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh Saturday.

Their goal? They want to persuade governor Roy Cooper to commute the sentences on behalf of the 135 people on death row to life in prison.

North Carolina has the fifth highest death row population in the United States, according to the website

The rally at the mansion will begin at 1:15 p.m. Organizers with the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NCADP) say this will be the state’s largest anti-death penalty gathering in more than a decade. 

Among the death penalty opponents expected to participate are family members who lost their loved ones to acts of deadly violence, according to an NCADP press release.

Indeed, 19 surviving family members sent a letter to the governor’s office on Wednesday asking Cooper to use his power to commute death sentences to prison terms. 

NCADP organizers say “a second letter from attorneys, advocates, and others directly affected by the death penalty was sent in support of the families, and to announce the beginning of a public campaign to demand that Cooper take action on the death penalty.”

“Executions are not justice,” said Megan Smith of Asheville, who lost her father and stepmother to murder. “We must dig deeper than surface-level revenge after an episode of violence. We should instead funnel our collective resources into creating strong, supportive communities that help prevent violence from occurring in the first place. As a middle school teacher, I see every day the importance of creating healthy communities — not only for teenagers, like the ones who killed my parents, but for all of us.”

North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. 

“All but a handful were sentenced more than two decades ago under outdated laws and public standards,” NCADP officials state in the release.

NCADP officials also point to the passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, and evidence of systematic racism contaminating the state’s death penalty trials. 

Death penalty opponents further note that 12 innocent people have been exonerated from North Carolina’s death row, 11 of them people of color

“It’s clear that North Carolina’s death sentences are not just unreliable but deeply racist,” said Henderson Hill, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, who will speak at the rally. “We’re asking Gov. Cooper to use his lawful authority to make sure that unjust executions are never carried out.”

Hill has represented several condemned prisoners including Elias Syriani, who was executed in 2005 for the murder of his wife. The couple’s children begged the state not to execute their only living parent, but their wishes were ignored. Elias Syriani’s son John is one of the signers of the homicide survivor letter, according to the release. 

Daryl Atkinson, an attorney and co-director of Forward Justice, which works for social, economic and racial justice in the south, is also scheduled to speak at the event. 

Atkinson, who was formerly imprisoned on drug charges, has built a career as a civil rights lawyer and activist. He served as the first Second Chance Fellow for the U.S. Department of Justice under President Obama. 

The rally will also feature musical and spoken word poetry performances.

“We are gathering to make a very clear request of Governor Cooper, and it’s a request that we plan to keep making over the next two years,” said Noel Nickle, executive director of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “We are also gathering to celebrate our community and to amplify the voices of those who are directly touched by the death penalty. We are a growing movement of North Carolinians who are demanding a new vision of justice that does not include the trauma and violence of executions.”

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