The choice to hold the two-day conference in North Carolina for the first time was initially seen as a boost for the state's growing movement for a moratorium on executions. But with public attention fixed on the country's "war on terrorism," that movement has recently lost some momentum.
Still, many death penalty foes view Sept. 11 as a short-term setback that may ultimately lead to broader support for halting executions. Because while many voices are calling for "vengeance politics" and the death penalty for terrorists, abolitionists--as conference participants call themselves--believe the events of Sept. 11 can also shine a bright light on the flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Author and conference keynote speaker Bruce Shapiro spoke to that dynamic. While the war the United States is now waging with the Taliban seems a clash of opposites, he noted that in times of war, the United States is often forced to see itself in a mirror. Right now what is in the mirror "more than anything else is capital punishment," Shapiro said. "The fact that capital punishment unites Kabul and Washington while dividing us from Europe ought to set people thinking."
In the wake of Sept. 11, "the question of capital punishment will emerge more vividly, more contentiously than ever before," Shapiro said. And the victims' families will not be a "unified vengeance lobby." As happened after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, he said, family members of those who died on Sept. 11 may also emerge as a force for both vengeance and forgiveness.
Several conference speakers noted that should any terrorists be captured in foreign nations, governments might refuse to extradite defendants facing the death penalty in the United States. Others focused on the effects the U.S. government's "war" on terrorism has had on criminal justice at home.
Keynote speaker Robert Meeropol, who was 6 years old when his parents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for treason in 1953, likened the current political climate to those days of McCarthyism. Meeropol pointed out that as many as 800 people are now being held under "indefinite detention" as possible material witnesses to recent terrorist attacks. In the current hysterical climate, abuses of power are more likely, Meeropol said. The detainees could be roped into a wide-ranging conspiracy and be charged with capital offenses for what may have been minor roles in the crimes of Sept. 11.
"Will these people become defendants in a wave of capital cases?" Meeropol asked. "Is the Rosenberg case about to repeat itself many times over?"
Panelist Jane Henderson of the Quixote Center, a Washington D.C.-based Catholic social justice group, spoke to the dangers and opportunities the current situation poses for death penalty foes.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Henderson said, the "issue of fairness" will still be important and "people are still open to our message." But she acknowledged that work to abolish the death penalty will likely take a back seat for some activists who will want to become involved in anti-war efforts.
But not everyone is switching gears. Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book, Dead Man Walking, barely made mention of Sept. 11 in her passionate address on the final day of the conference. Prejean kept the crowd of more than 300 in a constant state of flux between laughter and tears as she told stories about her work with death row inmates, their families and with murder victims' families.
A lawyer's daughter who was educated in Catholic schools, Prejean said it was her work with the poor that led her to oppose the death penalty. "This is a poor person's issue," she said.
Her knowledge of social injustice grew as her relationships with poor people grew. When she had an audience with Pope John Paul II, Prejean said she told the pontiff: "Your holiness, what I find is people across this country, if they're involved with poor people, they get the issues very quickly."
Prejean's book about the case of executed murderer Matt Poncelet eventually wound up in the hands of actress Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her role in a 1996 movie portraying Prejean. The film, also called Dead Man Walking, propelled Prejean into a limelight so bright, she now has to set her calendar a year in advance.
Despite the recognition and praise, Prejean said famous people must never lose sight of the fact that "celebrity status" carries an enormous responsibility. "Whatever celebrity status people have, it's for service," she said. "We do our little part and the truth spreads."
As people learn more about the injustice of the death penalty, Prejean said, they will "come to realize, 'This is wrong. This needs to be changed and I will not be neutral.'"
In an interview after her speech, Prejean did talk about Sept. 11, calling the violence of the death penalty inseparable from the violence of war. The large numbers of Americans now speaking in support of war is "fear speaking," she said. "And of course when you're vulnerable and it's survival at stake, you all rally around a leader with almost blind obedience, and so people are flying flags and people are supporting President Bush, and saying we've got to get these people and all that."
Prejean believes that if another terrorist attack occurs, "then when Bush says, 'We're doing all we can,' people are not going to trust that as much, and it pushes us all to a deeper level." That level is about looking at the reasons behind the terrorist attacks, Prejean said. "The question about why they hate us can be the beginning of spiritual journey."
As for how best to respond to the events of Sept. 11, Prejean likened bombing Afghanistan to using a baseball bat to cleanse a room of a virus. Instead, she noted that Jesus believed in the power of love to overcome hate.
"When we turn to violence it's like we say, 'Look, basically love can't work here. That's a luxury for later. Right now we got to do a little hatin' and we got to do a little killin', make our point, be tough; maybe love will come later,'" Prejean said. "But love is the strongest force in the world because it does justice."