Bible Belt activists try to halt executions
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - The Rev. Donnie Anderson, a longtime advocate of capital punishment, agreed to counsel a death-row inmate six months before the man was to die. The Pentecostal minister rejoiced when the inmate's sentence was temporarily stayed and mourned two years ago when the convicted murderer was executed.
By the time a religious activist visited his church in Fayetteville this fall to ask Anderson to support a resolution urging North Carolina to suspend executions, the minister had already begun to believe there is just as much biblical Scripture against the death penalty as there is for it, and he had begun to question whether executions can be administered fairly. He could not commit himself right away to backing a moratorium on executions, but after mulling the issue over for a few weeks, came around to supporting a temporary halt to the death penalty until questions about its fairness can be addressed.
"If I were pressed, I'd have to say I am a death penalty proponent," Anderson said as he sat in his church study, flipping through a leather-bound Bible. "But I still struggle with it."
Here in the Bible Belt, where religion often influences politics, a national faith-based movement to suspend the death penalty would seem at odds with popular sentiment. But a band of activists called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has crisscrossed North Carolina since 1999, trying to persuade the religious community to back a proposed suspension of executions. So far, 400 congregations have signed on, and in the last year they have helped influence 20 municipalities to endorse a two-year moratorium.
People of Faith is part of a religious movement active in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and other Bible Belt states that have the death penalty. In Maryland, the faith-based activists played a pivotal part in May in persuading Governor Parris Glendening to declare a one-year moratorium.
The activists acknowledge that the emotional reaction to the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area has set the movement back in Maryland and Virginia. Prosecutors in the two states have filed capital charges against one of the suspects, John Allen Muhammad, and one Virginia county has lodged similar charges against the other suspect, John Lee Malvo, a juvenile who is 17. But the activists say they will continue to push for a moratorium.
"At this particular moment and after this kind of crime, there is obviously a great deal of hype, and anger is running high," said Jane Henderson, codirector of Quixote Center, a faith-based social justice organization in Hyattsville, Md. "It doesn't suddenly make the death penalty fair."
Jack Payden-Travers, director of the interfaith Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said his group's goal is to try to "calm down what we feel is a kind of vigilantism being practiced by the two prosecutors - in Maryland and Virginia."
Stephen Dear, North Carolina president of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said asking congregations in that state to support a resolution to suspend executions has been a challenge. His telephone calls are not always taken, and Dear has received hate mail written on church stationery."
"We've heard Genesis 9:6 so many times," said Dear. That verse, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," is invoked as a biblical endorsement of capital punishment.
"But we have a list of two dozen or more citations from the Bible that show God calling human beings to act with compassion toward sinners and murderers," Dear said. "It can be sensitive, but I think when most people start hearing stories about innocent people on death row, then they agree to it."
The moral struggle that Anderson, 48, has undergone could be a metaphor for the entire state of North Carolina, where 208 inmates are on death row, but many residents have come to share ambivalent feelings about the fairness of the death penalty. While about 70 percent of Carolinians support capital punishment, various polls suggest an equal proportion support a moratorium.
Fueled by exonerations of innocent people sentenced to death, both Illinois and Maryland within the last year have temporarily halted executions. Nationwide, 77 municipalities from Cambridge to Lexington, Va., have passed resolutions calling for moratoriums on capital punishment.
"Now it's not just the usual suspects who have always supported a moratorium, but it's new people - Republican governors, legislators, town councils in the South," said Richards Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
In North Carolina, the swell of support for a moratorium reflects a significant shift in public opinion in a state where politicians have feared being voted out of office if they spoke against the death penalty. The City Council in Charlotte, the state's largest city, overrode the mayor's veto of a moratorium resolution in 2000. Last year, Fayetteville, a conservative, military-oriented city, adopted one. The most vocal supporter of the resolution was later elected mayor. Support for a moratorium has been growing in the state Legislature.
Nicholas Hopkins, the activist who approached Anderson about supporting a moratorium, was not confident he could drum up support in Fayetteville, a city of 121,000 where American flags, army surplus stores, and military crewcuts are common.
"From what I heard there wasn't a chance in hell we'd get a resolution passed. But, here is the interesting part: It was a breeze to get the resolution passed," Hopkins said.
One reason politicians and churches were willing to support the proposed moratorium in Fayetteville is that the resolution does not call for an end of the death penalty, but simply says the state's system of capital punishment is so broken that executions should be halted until it can be fixed.
Dear, who works out of a small office in Carborro, N.C., near Raleigh, relies on 1,600 activists like Hopkins to lobby council members, clerics, and business leaders. Diane Corlett, an Episcopal minister in Raleigh, has repeatedly used her pulpit to try to persuade the 600 members of the congregation to back a moratorium.
While 70 percent of Corlett's congregation supports the moratorium, some parishioners oppose her using the church to call the death penalty system racist and unjust. Two families left Corlett's congregation. Others, she said, have argued that if death was good enough for Jesus then it is good enough for a killer.
"The logic blows me away," she said.
For his part, Anderson says he still believes that the death penalty is the right thing, but says he is not sure anymore that biblical verses like "an eye for an eye" really support capital punishment. Knowing of innocent people who faced the death penalty has contributed to his concern about its fairness.
"It doesn't play into whether I think the death penalty is right or wrong, but it does play into whether I think people should be put to death if it's a likelihood or a possibility that it could be proven the person could be innocent," said Anderson. "But my struggle is mostly biblical."
Two years ago, the issue of the death penalty became personal. Anderson told the grandmother of Lonnie Weeks, a convicted murderer, that he would officiate over Weeks's funeral. "I met him and talked with him. He accepted the Lord in prison," Anderson said, showing a photograph of Weeks being baptized.
Days before the execution, Weeks's death was delayed because of a legal issue. The delay prompted Anderson to wonder whether Weeks, a North Carolina native, should die if there were any questions about his case. Weeks was convicted of killing a Virginia police officer. "The whole church hurt from this," he said.
"It just really brings this close to your heart."
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company. November 16, 2002