When her youngest son, Elmer Ray McNeill Jr., was sentenced to death on April 9, 1996, in a Wake County courtroom, Roberta McNeill yelled to him as sheriff's deputies led her son away: "Hey! I love you! I'll always love you!" Since that day, McNeill has endured a gut-wrenching wait, not knowing if her son will live or die. What has been especially difficult has been the loneliness McNeill, 65, and her husband, Ray McNeill, 70, have felt at having a child condemned to die.
"You can't talk to anyone about it; they have closed minds," McNeill says. "If he was convicted, he was guilty. They don't want to hear about it...
"They don't even think about the fact that they have a family. It's just someone who's going to be executed. They don't think he's got a mother or a father, possibly a wife and children, sisters, brothers. They don't think that they're destroying another family."
Since her son was sentenced to death for the Sept. 19, 1993, murders of John Ray and Mike Truelove, the McNeills have made the approximately five-hour drive from their Summerville, S.C., home to Raleigh's Central Prison once or twice a month to visit their son, who is now 35.
The McNeills had some of their emotional burden lifted recently when they met Sheila Stumph and Scott Langley, a young couple who last September rented a house on Dorothea Drive a few blocks from Central Prison and opened the Raleigh Catholic Worker Hospitality House.
The couple offer support, meals and a place to stay for families visiting loved ones on death row. There is no charge to stay at the worker house. Langley estimates that about 15 to 20 family members of death row inmates have come by to spend the night, visit or to have a meal since the house opened.
When Langley and Stumph went to Washington, D.C., recently to participate in a fast and vigil to abolish the death penalty at the U.S. Supreme Court, the McNeills decided to join them. Roberta McNeill said the four-day event, called Starvin' for Justice 2005, was the first time she realized that there were people in the world who understood her plight.
"It was a great experience," says McNeill, who had never participated in a public event against the death penalty. "I wasn't by myself in the world. I found out there were a lot of people besides myself who were against the death penalty. Before I got involved I just didn't realize there was anybody who you could talk to."
Both Roberta McNeill and Peggy Kandies, the mother of N.C. death row inmate Jeff Kandies, spoke during teach-in sessions on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court. The fast began June 29, the date in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court halted all executions. The Supreme Court allowed executions to resume on July 2, 1976.
Stumph said having the three parents of death row inmates at the fast showed another side to the capital punishment issue.
"Just their physical presence there I think was so important because they're the faces that we don't see," says Stumph, 28. "People think of these 'monsters on death row,' but they don't think about these inmates having parents, that they have children, that they have wives, they have husbands and things like that, and I know for me, their presence makes visual how the cycle of violence continues; the death penalty creates one more victim."
Roberta McNeill said that during her son's trial her husband noticed a vein in her neck was pulsating. After the trial ended, McNeill saw a doctor, who said her blood pressure was "extremely high." A heart checkup showed McNeill had an enlarged heart and two leaking valves. Although she had no previous history of high blood pressure, McNeill has also had two strokes.
"It's just the stress. The stress will kill you," she says. "It's like having your child kidnapped and his life threatened and there's not anything you can do about it, because nobody's going to help you. I hear about mothers dying while their sons are in jail."
In the 10 years the son she calls Ray has been on death row, Roberta McNeill has never been permitted to touch him.
"It makes you feel helpless, because there's nothing you can do to help him except talk to the lawyer," she says. "It's terrible. You know he's hurting, and you can't put your arm around him. It's like ignoring a child when he's hurt."
Stumph and Langley moved to Raleigh from Haley House, another Catholic Worker community in Boston. Langley said their idea was to combine the Catholic Worker tradition of hospitality and political activism with resistance to the death penalty.
"We felt called to work against the death penalty on a deeper level," he says.
Both Roberta McNeill and Langley support the effort to pass a moratorium on executions in North Carolina. Langley is not pleased that the General Assembly did not pass a full moratorium. (A compromise measure was slated for consideration as this issue went to press.)
"We're put in a situation where we're saying, 'OK, we can save some of them, hopefully, but we're not going to be able to save everybody.' And it's kind of like picking and choosing and playing this role of who's going to live and die," Langley says. "It's just hard to settle for less, because the loss of one life is one too many.
"I guess we have to be optimistic that this is a step in the right direction. It's out of our hands. It's the politicians that are making the call. What can we do? It's hard."
Says Roberta: "I'm hoping for more than [a moratorium], but that's a good start."
The Raleigh Catholic Worker holds a weekly vigil against the death penalty on Mondays from 5 to 6 p.m. in front of Central Prison. For more information, call 833-4129.