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Cover story

Moratorium leader sees hope for end of death penalty

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Chapel Hill, N.C.

In spring of 1999, Stephen Dear had a hunch. As head of a statewide group in North Carolina called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, Dear had attended a national anti-death penalty conference in Texas.

There he became committed to a new effort being promoted by abolitionists: a moratorium. Ostensibly a temporary measure to determine whether the death penalty is being administered fairly, opponents hope a moratorium will expose capital punishment as irreparably unjust, and lead states and the federal government to abolish it.

Dear saw possibilities in a moratorium. While a significant majority of U.S. citizens -- perhaps as many as 70 percent of North Carolinians -- generally support the death penalty, Dear believes those same proponents might not be so enthusiastic if they knew what he knows: Death rows in the United States are disproportionately full of poor people of color who often have had inadequate representation at trial. ** People of Faith is a statewide group that seeks to abolish the death penalty and provide support for inmates on death row, their families and families of victimes.

Idea takes off

When Dear floated the moratorium idea by his board, interest was minimal. Eighteen months later, with Dear at the helm, has propelled North Carolina into the forefront of the burgeoning moratorium effort. By the end of 2000, nine cities in North Carolina, including the state’s largest city, Charlotte, had passed moratorium resolutions. More cities are expected to join in this year.

More than 140 other groups, from individual congregations to university student governments, have also passed moratorium resolutions.

Dear, a native of Elizabeth City, N.C., believes logic and justice are on his side. Part of the reason the moratorium effort is growing, he said, is death penalty advocates don’t have to change their position to get on the bandwagon. In fact, a lot of the momentum for a moratorium is coming from Republicans and conservatives who support the death penalty but are starting to question the way capital punishment is applied.

The media of late has been full of stories of condemned men being freed from death row because new evidence has exonerated them. The prospect of an innocent person being executed is enough to give pause to the most ardent proponent of capital punishment, Dear believes.

Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and one of the nation’s most prominent death penalty foes, came to Raleigh last year to help bolster the moratorium effort. Prejean has become one of Dear’s greatest fans.

“The great thing about Steve Dear is he, more than anyone else in this country, is able to galvanize and change public opinion about the death penalty,” Prejean said. “He has been the first to show the dynamics between religious communities, city councils and state legislatures. First, he gets religious congregations to sign on for a moratorium against the death penalty, and then religious congregations call on the city council, and then the city council builds the collective will within the state to call on state legislators.”

At an anti-death penalty gathering held recently at the United Nations, it was announced that 250,000 U.S. signatures had been collected for the U.N.’s Moratorium 2000 Campaign, a resolution asking for a global halt to executions. Dear and People of Faith were responsible for the 21,000 signatures collected in North Carolina. Only California, by a few hundred signers, gathered more.

Widespread support

“The widespread public support for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina is undeniable, and it continues to grow,” Dear said. “The tide is turning. Whatever you think about the death penalty, you’ve got to admit there’s change happening. We have great changes coming about in America.”

Dear’s group has received significant support from the state’s more than 300,000 registered Catholics. Raleigh diocese Bishop F. Joseph Gossman asked his pastors to promote the moratorium effort from the pulpit and collect signatures after Masses during Advent. The People of Faith board has always included a large number of Catholics.

Dear finds it isn’t hard to be persuasive. “It’s easy to give a talk about the death penalty because the numbers are on our side every way you look at it. It’s just not working the way anybody would want it to work.”

The numbers he cites are compelling:

  • Since 1970, more than 80 condemned inmates -- four from North Carolina ---- were found to be innocent and freed from death row.
  • In North Carolina, 98 percent of those facing capital charges cannot afford to hire an attorney.
  • In North Carolina, a person charged with killing a white is 4.4 times more likely to receive a death sentence.
  • Sixty-six percent of all executions in North Carolina have been of African-Americans, a group that constitutes less than 20 percent of the state’s population.
  • More than 60 percent of the state’s 216 death row inmates are non-whites.

At the conference in Texas in 1999, Dear agreed to help push the moratorium effort to force a review of the death penalty in the United States. To get the effort underway in North Carolina, Dear sent out 500 letters with moratorium resolutions to 25 cities and scores of congregations.

“Almost all of them threw it away,” Dear admits.

Not everyone did. The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern North Carolina adopted the moratorium solely on the basis of receiving Dear’s letter. Both Catholic dioceses in the state have signed on as supporters.

700 executions

Since 1977, almost 700 people have been injected, electrocuted, shot, hanged or gassed to death in U.S. prisons. Sixteen of those executions have been carried out in Raleigh’s Central Prison.

Dear says the moratorium is a whole different way of approaching an issue nobody really wants to talk about. Indeed, Dear points out that the moratorium effort is getting its biggest boosts from unlikely sources. In 1997, the American Bar Association kicked things off when it adopted a resolution calling for a nationwide halt to executions. Earlier this year, Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan ordered a suspension of executions citing his state’s “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.”

Recently, conservatives Pat Robertson and George Will -- both ardent death penalty supporters -- added their names to those backing a moratorium. In fact, Dear said he and others working to pass moratorium resolutions have been shocked by the number of death penalty proponents who have voted for a moratorium.

Since Dear took the job at People of Faith in 1997, he has spent a large portion of his time organizing vigils and prayer services for the more than a dozen men whose execution dates were set. Dear also led delegations of clergy members and others to the governor’s office in North Carolina. Twice, during Dear’s tenure, former Gov. James Hunt granted clemency. He allowed executions to be carried out in 12 other cases.

With the moratorium effort, Dear said he’s relieved to finally be devoting his energy to a more upbeat project. The moratorium effort has given a boost to death penalty opponents, who have had little reason for hopefulness in recent years.

Dear sees the hand of the Holy Spirit at work. “When we’re standing outside these city and town councils [after a meeting], we’re shaking our heads in wonderment,” Dear said.

Today, U.S. citizens are starting to reexamine how the death penalty is being administered, both at the federal level and in the 38 states that impose death sentences. Accounts of innocent people being sentenced to death have fueled the new debate.

Big brother John

Stephen Dear, the youngest of David and Margaret Dear’s four sons, spent his formative years growing up in Bethesda, Md., where he attended Catholic schools. Among his older brothers is Jesuit Fr. John Dear, who has earned a national reputation for his anti-war efforts. John Dear recently resigned as executive director of Fellowship of Reconciliation.

For Stephen Dear, working at People of Faith is his second time as head of a statewide advocacy group. He spent five years in the early 1990s as executive director of the N.C. Rural Communities Assistance Project, a group that primarily helped small communities with water and wastewater issues.

Despite its reputation as a conservative Southern state, the North Carolina Legislature is considering a moratorium. It was recommended last November to the General Assembly by one of its committees as a way of studying how the death penalty is imposed. North Carolina has the nation’s fifth-largest population of convicts on death row.

Dear said People of Faith will continue to promote the effort by gathering moratorium signatures across the state this year. They will be presented to members of the state Legislature and to recently elected Gov. Mike Easley. Easley, a Catholic, a Democrat and a former attorney general, ran for governor on a strong pro-death penalty platform.

Dear wants a meeting between Easley and death penalty opponents in an effort to head off an execution scheduled for Jan. 19 and others set for later in the year. Easley, whose first day in office was Jan. 8, has yet to respond to the meeting request.

“I hope he will see all the Catholic support for the moratorium, that he will see his bishop among the leaders of the moratorium effort, and that he will listen to them,” Dear said. “I don’t know how he can reconcile his faith with the way that he’s led North Carolina in the killing of so many people.”

Time is on the abolitionists’ side, Dear believes. “The death penalty’s going to be abolished,” he said. “[It] is inexorably withering on the vine as a policy.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001