For the last four years, my group, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, has been talking to city councils, congregations, businesses, and community and students groups, asking them to endorse a resolution for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. Seven hundred and fifty of them have done so, including 21 local governments.
Every now and then we join volunteers and walk through the business districts of small towns throughout the state, clipboards in hand, entering ma 'n' pa businesses cold and asking each owner to endorse the resolution in the name of their business.
It has gotten much easier to do over the years, but one place we thought would still be a tough sell is Mt. Airy in Surrey County, Andy Griffith's hometown and the basis for his fictional "Mayberry." In fact, the Mt. Airy News appears to be the only newspaper in the state with editorials opposing a moratorium. (All the major papers endorse it as do a growing number of rural papers.)
Earlier this month, the time came to test the moratorium in Mayberry. A colleague and I joined two Wake Forest University students, who were working with us as part of a class project, and walked Main Street in downtown Mt. Airy.
We split into pairs. Jay York, a Wake Forest senior, and I got a resolution from every business owner we approached. "Some people grabbed the clipboard out of our hands to sign before we could finish speaking," York told our friends when we met up with them.
In only about half an hour before we left town to canvass in another rural county, we'd collected moratorium resolutions from eight Mt. Airy businesses up and down Main Street, including the Mayberry Five and Dime. The store's owner said he knew a local man who decades ago had been sent to death row and whose head had been shaved in preparation for his electrocution when someone else confessed to the crime. A customer in DJ's Suntan and Hair Design nearby said she recalled two brothers from the area who were executed but later widely believed to have been innocent.
It is clear that the shopkeepers in Mt. Airy believe North Carolina's death penalty has not improved over the decades, and that "some of them are innocent," a phrase often heard from shopkeepers.
We don't need to go back decades for stories of innocent people on our death row.
Last week, N.C. Superior Court Judge Michael Beale ordered a new trial for Jerry Hamilton, who was convicted of a 1994 murder in Richmond County after finding that the state withheld exculpatory evidence at Hamilton's trial. DNA samples from the crime match Hamilton's co-defendant, but do not match Hamilton. Hamilton's co-defendant initially confessed to the crime, then recanted, and was the key witness against Hamilton at trial.
Why does North Carolina need a moratorium on executions? Ask Jerry Hamilton, Alan Gell, Timothy Hennis, Charles Munsey, Samuel Poole, and Alfred Rivera--all of whom wrongly endured years on North Carolina's death row. Look into theirs and other death penalty cases in North Carolina and you will find prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense counsel, false testimonies, racial bias, shoddy evidence--a slew of horror stories that North Carolina can no longer ignore.
Stephen Dear is executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Moratorium Lobby Day at the General Assembly is Tuesday (May 6) at 9 a.m., starting in the N.C. Museum of History and continuing with a rally at noon in front of the Legislative Building. For more information, visit www.pfadp.org.