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Facts, figures, feelings

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At a press conference in Raleigh last week about North Carolina's death penalty, the most impressive speaker was also the least well-known. Charisse Coleman, a young writer and newcomer to the Triangle, was there to support a call by the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers for an immediate halt to state-sponsored executions.

Seated at a long table in front of a small crowd of reporters, Coleman listened quietly as prominent Tar Heel attorneys, law professors and anti-death penalty activists described how the system operates as a cruel lottery--unfairly targeting those who are non-white, poor and live in rural counties. She held her hands in her lap as fellow-speakers cited polls showing a decline in unequivocal public support for the death penalty. One recent study by The Charlotte Observer found 62 percent of North Carolinians surveyed favor a moratorium on executions. The Trial Lawyers' own poll put that share at 59 percent.

When it was her turn to speak, Coleman made it clear she wouldn't be citing statistics. Instead, she talked about her older brother, Russell, who was murdered five years ago during a convenience-store robbery in Louisiana. In words as precise and thorough as a police report, Coleman recounted exactly what her brother was doing when three armed men came into the store where he worked and what they said before one of them shot him in the back. The crowd sat motionless as Coleman paused to still a tremble in her voice that began when she described how her brother bled to death on the floor.

Her voice stopped trembling when she got to the heart of her speech. "Before Russell was killed, I was opposed to the death penalty. When he was killed, I was opposed to the death penalty. When his killer was sentenced, I was opposed to the death penalty," Coleman said. The desires of victim's families for justice--even vengeance--are understandable, she added, gazing steadily out at the room full of strangers. But they shouldn't be the basis for public policy.

"We have a terrible, terrible crisis of violence in this country," Coleman said. "State-sanctioned killings only add fuel to the flames."

When she took her seat, the room breathed again, and reporters began to pepper the other speakers with questions. Stories in the next day's paper focused on the polls and the politics of the call for a death-penalty moratorium. Despite the applause she'd received, it seemed Coleman's most powerful message went unheeded: When it comes to changing the death penalty, feelings are as important as facts.

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