Last Thursday night, Debbie Biesack left a meeting of the Wake County chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP) and headed back to her home in Fuquay-Varina, confident that a last-minute federal court appeal had at least temporarily spared the life of death row inmate Raymond Dayle Rowsey, who was slated to be executed Friday at 2 a.m.
Rowsey's lawyers had successfully argued before conservative U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle that the state's method of execution--injection of poison--amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because the condemned could awaken during the procedure and suffer an excruciating death. Rowsey had been sentenced to die for the March 24, 1992, shooting death of 20-year-old Burlington convenience store clerk Howard Rue Sikorski.
Just five minutes down the road, Biesack got a call on her cell phone from PFADP executive director Stephen Dear with bad news--the U.S. Supreme Court had lifted the stay; Rowsey's execution was going forward as scheduled.
Biesack headed back to N.C. State's Doggett Catholic Student Center, where she found a few people still there. Biesack, Dear and others started quickly spreading the word over cell phones that the stay had been lifted. Instead of a crowd of dozens of people that would normally gather on the eve of an execution, just seven people followed a Raleigh police escort for the approximately half-mile procession to Central Prison. Even the usual supply of candles was not available.
Biesack said the group had discussed Rowsey's case at the meeting, and figured the nation's highest court would not lift the stay.
"We all felt fairly confident that it would not be overturned," Biesack said.
But, instead of having a six-month or more hiatus from executions that death penalty opponents were hoping for, Rowsey, 32, became the eighth person executed in the last 20 weeks, the most of any state in the nation in that time period. Gov. Mike Easley also denied clemency for Rowsey.
Rowsey and his family were having their first-ever contact visit in the prison's death watch area when they got the news. In the room was 11-year-old Jeanna Rowsey. Born after her father went to jail, Jeanna had never touched her father before that day. All of her visits over the years had been through a partition in the prison's loud visiting room.
"He got the Christmas present he asked for," said Wayne Spell, Rowsey's older brother. "He got to hold his daughter and tell her face-to-face that he loved her."
Following the execution, Alamance County D.A. Robert Johnson read aloud from a handwritten statement he issued to the media rehashing the details of Sikorski's murder. As he spoke, some members of Rowsey's family were weeping.
"The district attorney nor the investigating officers take no pleasure in their duties which have led to this execution," Johnson said. "Nevertheless justice has been done."
That was not the opinion of Rowsey's mother, Barbara Thompson, who spoke after witnessing her son's execution.
"When they injected my son, they injected me," Thompson said, with anger and sorrow in her voice. "They took my heart out, and ripped it apart. It's not right. It is not right to take his life. I'm stating this from my heart. No man has the right to take another man's life, no matter who it is."
Rowsey's sister, Rhonda Flack, who fainted on the sidewalk in front of Central Prison as the execution was taking place, was also distraught as she spoke to the media.
"Y'all killed my brother; you killed my family," she said. "It's not right. No matter if he's guilty or not, murder is murder. What do you call this? This is murder. Better yet, this is premeditated murder."
Last Saturday, the state medical examiner released Rowsey's body to his family. A viewing in the family's Haw River home drew a large group of mourners, Flack said. Rowsey, who had Cherokee blood on both sides of his family, was buried in the Haw River Cemetery on Monday following a graveside service that included both Native American ritual and a Christian minister, Flack said. Rowsey made no last statement, but he did tell his brother Wayne that he held no animosity toward anyone as he faced death.
"To forgive somebody is easy to say," Spell said. "But you have to be able to forget it. Like God says when you ask for forgiveness: 'I give it to you, and I cast it to the farthest corners of the world,' and I believe my brother did this."