Maybe News & Observer editorial page editor Steve Ford was trying to use reverse psychology on Gov. Mike Easley when he opined Jan. 15 that Easley "would not allow a man who pretty clearly grew up with an impaired brain to be executed. Would he?"
It was a nice try Steve, but last Friday, Perrie Dyon Simpson, 43, became the 40th person to die in Central Prison's death chamber in the last 22 years. Two dozen men have been injected to death during Easley's five-plus years in office; four of those executions have been carried out in the last 10 weeks, and there's no sign that the process is slowing down as 173 inmates remain on the state's death row.
Simpson, who was removed from his abusive family as a child, was sentenced to death for the Aug. 27, 1984, murder of the Rev. Jean E. Darter, a 92-year-old Baptist minister. Simpson's lawyers appealed to Easley for mercy in part because of the conclusions of Wake Forest University neuropsychologist Frank Balch Wood, who wrote that Simpson's "memory and attentional control" were "severely abnormal and indicative of significant brain dysfunction."
In denying clemency, Easley said what he always says: "I find no convincing reason to overturn the verdicts of the juries, affirmed by the state and federal courts."
During a prayer service at Sacred Heart Cathedral, held just hours before the 2 a.m. execution, Simpson's friend Shirley Hinton, who spent part of last Thursday visiting Simpson, held out hope that Easley would grant clemency. She asked those in the church to not speak or pray in the past tense about Simpson, who lived with 16 foster families as a child.
"Perrie's fate has not been decided as of yet, and we are still prayerful that he will not at all be executed tonight," Hinton said. "There is still hope."
As he walked up the sidewalk in front of Central Prison, Chapel Hill attorney James Glover, who had represented Simpson, said, "This is going to be a tough one."
During the prayer service, Glover said Darter's murder was "committed by one who was lost, and whose inner self was a gentle soul, not one of violence, and we failed him again."
In his final statement, Simpson apologized for killing Darter.
"I want to say I am sorry for what I did," Simpson said. "I'm sorry for the victim and the families. I'm sorry for my family. I'm sorry for everybody. ... May God bless everyone."
Darter's grandson, Curtis Faircloth, who watched Simpson die, also released a statement on behalf of his family, saying that the imposition of the death penalty saves lives by deterring murder.
"We hope coverage of Perrie Simpson's death sentence and execution will cause others to think about the consequences of taking a life, respect the law, and increase the value people place on the life of others," Faircloth wrote.
Polly Sizemore, one of Simpson's attorneys who also witnessed the execution, had a different view of her client.
"As it did for the first 18 years of Perrie's life, the state once again failed him tonight," Sizemore said. "We can only hope that out of this ... the only good thing that I could think that could possibly come is that the state of North Carolina never treats another child like it treated Perrie."
With last year's failure of the General Assembly to pass a moratorium on executions, the state's abolitionist movement has shifted gears. As prison officials prepared to kill Simpson, 15 activists, many donning sack cloth and clinging to plastic bags full of ashes, joined hands on the Western Boulevard sidewalk to pray in the cold night air.
"We are angry, Lord," said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Duke Divinity student and minister at Durham's St. Johns Baptist Church. "We are deeply sad that we are part of a people who insist on steadily continuing the idolatrous practice of human sacrifice. We repent, Lord, of the fear, the desire for security, that is behind that idol worship, and we pray for your forgiveness."
Minutes later, the group attempted to walk past a line of police and prison guards who were standing shoulder-to-shoulder near the prison driveway. For a while, the State Capitol Police were rougher than they needed to be with the nonviolent demonstrators, many of whom were dragged away after refusing police orders to disperse.
In the end, all 15 were arrested, charged with second-degree trespass and given a March 2 court date. All 15 were released early Friday on their own recognizance from the Wake County jail.
Those arrested were: Sheila Stumph, Scott Langley, Ethan Bodnaruk, Dante Strobino and Martin Caver, all of Raleigh; Matthew Gates, Beth Brockman, Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Eric Getty, Jackie Alder, Sheila McCarthy, David Arthur and William Gural, all of Durham; and Dan Schwankl of Silk Hope.