A Wake County District Court judge expressed his admiration for 10 death penalty opponents last week before convicting them of trespass during a bench trial.

“Having grown up in the ’60s, I admire your convictions,” Judge Don Overby told the defendants on June 19, some of whom had been arrested four times prior to the last four executions at Raleigh’s Central Prison.

Overby, who told the group he teaches a criminal law course at N.C. State, appeared apologetic as he issued a prayer for judgment continued for the 10 in lieu of a more severe sentence. That means the conviction won’t show up on their criminal records and the charges will be listed as pending indefinitely. Each defendant also was assessed $110 in court costs, but no fine.

After repeating a second time that he admired their convictions, Overby added, “But it gets down to what is the law of this state. … Each of you knowingly violated the law of our state, and my job demands that I uphold the law.”

During the unorthodox session, which lasted most of the morning, the defendants, all of whom were motivated to risk arrest because of their Christian faith, represented themselves and called Duke theological ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas as an expert witness.

Taking the stand for the defendants was Duke Divinity School student and four-time arrestee Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 25, who told the judge the defendants’ actions were designed to stop state-sanctioned killings.

“We knowingly trespassed to prevent a homicide that was planned by the state,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.

In one query to Wilson-Hartgrove, Overby cited the oft-quoted verse in Romans 13 that calls for obedience to earthly authorities: “Everyone must obey the state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God.”

In response, Wilson-Hartgrove said the defendants were submitting to the authority of the state by taking responsibility for their actions and willingly accepting the consequences imposed by the court, a practice Wilson-Hartgrove said was embraced by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when the Romans argument was made to King during civil rights movement protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

In his testimony, Hauerwas said Romans 13 is often quoted out of context. Quoting from Romans 12, Hauerwas said God’s laws must also be applied to earthly authorities.

“It says you are, of course, not to seek vengeance and you are to forgive your enemies, and that obviously applies to Caesar,” Hauerwas said in an interview after the trial. “The governing authorities are supposed to obey Jesus, too.”

Hauerwas, one of the world’s leading scholars on theological ethics and an opponent of the death penalty, praised the defendants’ character.

“They frighten the hell out of me because they live what I say,” he said after the trial. “They’re young, and you see the advantage of youth. They’re doing what young people ought to do.”

The direct action protests started Dec. 2 when 17 people, many of them donning sackcloth vests and carrying ashes, walked together into the driveway entrance to Central Prison just hours before the execution of Kenneth Lee Boyd, who was the 1,000 person executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Police arrested the 17. Arrests for similar actions were made before three other executions this year for a total of 55 arrests. Charges are still pending against some defendants arrested before the April 21 execution of Willie Brown.

The others who were convicted of second-degree trespass last week were: David Eugene Arthur, Elizabeth Brockman, Matthew S. Gates, Eric R. Getty, William Gural, Scott Langley, Sheila McCarthy, Daniel Schwankl and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove.