Episcopal Diocese challenges death penalty

by Jordan Green

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which stretches from Wilson to Gastonia and covers the state’s three major metropolitan areas, passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty at its annual convention in Winston-Salem on Jan. 28.

Rev. Charles Hawes, Episcopal chaplain for UNCG and the pastor at St. Mary’s House in Greensboro, who wrote the resolution for the convention’s faith and morals committee, said the committee had originally considered a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty, but moved to a more principled stand in the spirit of a speech by Bishop Michael Curry about the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King.

‘“The bishop in his opening address referenced an event in the life of Martin Luther King in which in the early days of the movement in response to death threats he slept with a pistol and had not clearly articulated a non-violent stance,’” Hawes said. ‘“[Movement colleague] Bayard Rustin confronted him on this and suggested he needed to make up his mind, and suggested that nonviolence has to be more than a tactic; it has to be a way of life. With an endorsement of a moratorium we were really talking about a tactic, not a moral principle.’”

The diocese voted to call on the NC General Assembly to suspend the death penalty and commute the sentences of the state’s death-row population.

A bill to suspend executions for two years while the legislature studied the fairness of the death penalty failed to gain traction in the NC House of Representatives last year. In addition to effecting a moratorium the original bill called for a study of the risk of executing innocent people as a result of inadequate legal defense, the effect of locale on whether prosecutors seek the death penalty, the possibility of prosecutorial misconduct and the role of the race of victims and defendants in the application of the death penalty. An amended bill that called for a study without a moratorium stalled in a House judiciary committee in September.

The testimony of three prominent North Carolina Episcopalians helped persuade the faith and morals committee to call for abolition, Hawes said. One was David Crabtree, an anchor and reporter at WRAL-TV in Raleigh who is also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Two others were Rep. Martha Alexander, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who was a co-sponsor of the House bill to study the death penalty, and Robert Orr, a retired NC Supreme Court judge. Alexander and Orr spoke as elected delegates representing their respective churches.

‘“What I said was that the issue as presented was whether the legislature should pass a moratorium,’” Orr said. ‘“I thought that was merely a tactic and it was going nowhere. And if the church was going to take a stand, I thought they ought to take a stand for abolition, or specific remedial steps to make the death penalty more fair.’”

Orr said he remains personally undecided about whether the death penalty should remain the law of North Carolina, but believes the system needs to be reformed, if not abolished.

‘“It was a very difficult issue,’” he said. ‘“Families and people who are victims of these crimes needed to be considered’… . They need to look at more uniform sentencing guidelines from prosecutorial district to prosecutorial district. There needs to be uniformity to the process to give the public confidence in the system.’”

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