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'We punished four innocent children'

Elias Syriani is executed at Central Prison for killing his wife in 1990--over the pleas of their children for mercy

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Following a week of high hopes, the terse press release came around 7:30 p.m. last Thursday: "After careful review of the facts and circumstances of this crime and conviction, I find no convincing reason to grant clemency," Gov. Mike Easley wrote, giving the final go-ahead for the execution of Elias Syriani, a 67-year-old father of four, whose case for clemency garnered national media attention.

Syriani, who was executed by injection Friday morning, had reconciled with his children despite the fact that he was on Central Prison's death row for the 1990 murder of their mother, Teresa Syriani. Syriani's funeral and burial was scheduled Wednesday near Chicago.

Last Thursday, Syriani's family received their only contact visit since the murder. Syriani spent the day visiting with his children who, for several weeks, had engaged in a frantic public campaign to win clemency for their father. The four children--Rose, Sarah, Janet and John--traveled throughout the state telling their story of redemption and forgiveness, a story that moved scores of citizens to write Easley, urging the governor to commute Syriani's case to life in prison without parole. The children appeared on several national television shows to tell an improbable story of forgiveness that even they called a miracle.

At Raleigh's Cardinal Gibbons High School, a Catholic school, more than 500 students signed a petition urging Easley, who's Catholic, to grant clemency. Raleigh Diocese Bishop F. Joseph Gossman also anointed Syriani. The Syriani children met with Easley on Nov. 17, and both the family and numerous lawyers involved with the case seemed hopeful that Easley, a former state attorney general, would spare Syriani.

Even as Thursday came and prison officials had moved Syriani to the "death watch" area near the execution chamber, people remained hopeful. That hope became despair as the family was spending its last hours together.

In the prison visitors center, where Syriani's family and friends waited to take turns going inside for visits, loud sobbing and wailing was heard as Syriani's shocked sister, Odeet, and the children mourned the news that Elias Syriani was to be the 22nd person executed on Easley's watch.

"This is a day of overwhelming sadness," Syriani's attorney, Henderson Hill, said following the 2 a.m. execution. "Tonight we punished four innocent children already scarred by family violence. Before his life was taken, Elias Syriani hugged and cuddled and comforted his four children. He sought as best he could to protect them from heartbreak."

Meg Eggleston of Greensboro, who had been visiting Syriani at the prison for the last four years, and her husband, former UNC-CH basketball player Donald Eggleston, witnessed the execution. The couple also attended Syriani's funeral.

"This governor apparently has no concern for these children," Donald Eggleston said at a post-execution press conference. "I won't stop believing that what we've done tonight diminishes every one of us."

In a final statement to the warden, Syriani said: "I want to thank God first for everything that happened in my life. I want to thank my children. I want to thank my family, especially my sister, Odeet. I want to thank all the beautiful friends who share with me my suffering for 15 years and four months."

As he lay strapped to a gurney minutes from death, Syriani looked at the Egglestons and said: "I love you. I love everybody."

Syriani was the fourth person executed this year. Kenneth Lee Boyd, 57, is scheduled for execution on Dec. 2.

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