Death penalty opponents who gathered Thursday night in front of Raleigh's Central Prison spent much of the evening huddled together, bracing themselves against the near-freezing temperatures as they awaited the 2 a.m. execution of John Dennis Daniels.
The lack of focus and chit-chat was slowly replaced by a stony silence as the clock neared the hour of Daniels' execution. By 2 a.m., the wind, which had blown strongly earlier in the night, had subsided; candles clutched in gloved hands were no longer being extinguished by bursts of cold air. The silence was only broken by the occasional passing car along Western Boulevard. No one called the group to attention, but the 45 or so people who stayed until the end started to settle down as the time of Daniel's execution approached. Everyone in the group stopped talking and turned to face the prison, where some shadowy figures could be seen behind locked windows.
UNC students Mike Simeone and Katie Germino held each other tightly as the time of Daniels' execution came and went.
"It was comforting that there were so many people who felt the same thing, and were here to honor John Daniels," Germino said. "At the same time, it's discouraging that Gov. Easley didn't give him clemency."
Daniels, 46, was convicted of killing his 77-year-old aunt, Isabella Daniels Crawford. Defense attorneys said Daniels was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine at the time of the murder. In a clemency hearing, members of Crawford's family had told Easley they were against the execution, and that Crawford herself would also have opposed the execution of her nephew. Even a psychiatrist who testified at Daniels' trial retracted her testimony in an affidavit that was shared with Easley, saying her testimony was based upon "insufficient information."
None of this moved a judge who denied last-minute appeals for a stay of execution. Nor did it move Easley, whose decision to deny clemency was announced shortly before a prayer service for Daniels began at Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.
Father Michael Burke, a Dominican Friar who had written and visited Daniels for eight years, led the prayer service. He also witnessed Daniels' execution.
Daniels had reconciled with his wife and son, and was ready to die, Burke said. "I have experienced Jesus in John Daniels."
Reporter Greg Phillips of The Daily Record in Dunn volunteered to witness Daniels' execution, even though Daniels' case had no ties to the Dunn area. A British national who majored in philosophy in college, Phillips said watching Daniels die was "an ethical experiment" for him.
"I feel that any supporter of capital punishment ought to be able to sit through an execution, emerge from that execution and say, 'Yes, I support capital punishment.' So it was kind of an ethical experiment in my mind to see how I would react and then see how I felt about capital punishment afterwards."
On Monday, Phillips' column against capital punishment was published in The Daily Record.
"I had volunteered as a witness because I thought the experience might help me make a decision as to my hitherto fluctuating opinion on capital punishment," he wrote. "It did, but witnessing an execution wasn't the decisive factor. What made up my mind was the week I spent dissecting the issue in greater detail than I ever had before. I can't justify capital punishment. French existentialist Albert Camus was right when he called it 'the most premeditated of murders.' "
Daniels became the sixth person this year to be put to death in North Carolina and the 29th since the state resumed executions in 1984. Robbie James Lyons is slated to become No. 30 on Dec. 5.