Lao Rubert sat in the Whole Foods grocery in Raleigh last week poring over a sheet of names of North Carolina House members. When she recognized a retired FBI agent who'd walked in to buy lunch, Rubert saw a chance to get another person behind the effort to adopt a moratorium against executions.
On the same day in Carrboro, Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, had no time for a coffee break. Dear was hard at work on an effort to get businesses and churches in all of North Carolina's 100 counties to pass resolutions supporting the moratorium. His group has hired the Rev. Phil Jones of the Church of the Brethren to fan out on the highways and byways of Eastern North Carolina to drum up support.
There's been a buzz in the air among death penalty opponents since the state Senate passed Senate Bill 972 last month calling for a two-year moratorium on executions to allow time for the death penalty to be studied. The move comes after state courts and independent investigations have found innocent men on death row because of incompetent defense work and prosecutorial improprieties.
Rubert, executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, had no luck with the former G-man, but, like Dear, she believes that a movement is building that could shift the tide of public opinion against capital punishment. While the moratorium is backed by plenty of capital punishment supporters who hope the penalty can eventually be imposed justly, opponents see a system that can't be fixed, a point they hope will become clear as the death penalty is studied.
On Monday, Dear was emphatic.
"Now is the time," he said in a telephone interview. "This month is the culmination of years--really decades--of work to get a moratorium passed."
Actual numbers are hard to calculate, but Dear says the moratorium faces an uphill battle in the state House, where a simple majority of the 120 members would be needed to send a moratorium bill on to Gov. Mike Easley. For now, the bill is in the house Rules Committee, and the goal of moratorium backers is to flood House offices with letters, e-mails, faxes and phone calls during the next two weeks. A vote on the bill is not likely before June, Dear said.
"We're up against fairly tough odds," Dear said, "but we were up against tough odds in the Senate, and we won there. It will fail if people don't take action."
Dear is urging supporters to thank legislators who have come out in favor of the moratorium and to send letters to their local newspapers urging passage.
"We need that in small town newspapers especially," Dear said.
If North Carolina passes a moratorium, it would be "a historic statement on a major social issue," Dear said. "A moratorium on executions in North Carolina would have a national impact."
At a May 6 pro-moratorium rally at the N.C. General Assembly, people traveled from around the state to lobby.
Rep. Larry Womble (D-Winston-Salem) spoke representing the Legislative Black Caucus.
"It is not time to pass (a moratorium), it's past time," Womble said. "We should have done it long ago. Everyone knows there is an element of race that enters into the death penalty. We also know that innocent people have been put to death."
Also in the crowd were three members of the family of Ernest Basden, a man who was executed last Dec. 6. for his part in a murder-for-hire plot that resulted in Billy White's death. The first lawyer in his case came down with leukemia, and the replacement was inexperienced, had little time to prepare, and failed to get sentencing delayed and possibly lessened when Basden testified for the state in related cases.
Basden's sister, Rose Clark, who sits on the board of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said it was her brother's last wish that the family keep fighting to abolish the death penalty.
Clark, who was at the rally with her husband, Denny, and her brother, Guy Basden, said the press coverage around her brother's case helped fuel the moratorium effort.
"I can't help but feel that's what Ernest wanted," Clark said. "He wanted to make a difference. He said, 'Don't quit fighting.' He made us promise to continue the fight. He said if it took his death to wake people up, that was fine."
Guy, who watched his brother die by injection, said: "It's too late for Ernest, but it's not too late for other people and that's what counts. We'd like to have Ernest back. But, Ernest is present today. His spirit's here."
To contact your representative, call the N.C. legislative switchboard at (919) 733-4111 or go to www.ncleg.net