On Friday, April 14, faith leaders from across North Carolina said the death penalty is immoral, cruel and inherently racist and called on Gov. Roy Cooper to commute the sentences of all 137 people on North Carolina’s death row before he leaves office in 2024. They held a morning press conference in Raleigh and released a letter signed by more than 300 leaders from all the state’s major faith traditions.
“We have two choices before us, whether we will choose violence or whether we will choose peace, whether we will choose life or whether we will choose death,” said Deacon Joshua Klickman, Coordinator for Human Life and Dignity for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. “I would ask Gov. Cooper to choose life.”
In recent months, governors across the country have acted forcefully against the death penalty, including those in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Gov. Cooper is one of just a handful of governors with sole authority to commute sentences. In the case of death sentences, he has the power to commute them to terms of imprisonment.
Rabbi Eric Solomon, leader of one of North Carolina’s largest Jewish congregations, Raleigh’s Beth Meyer Synagogue, acknowledged that the Bible contains examples of capital punishment. However, he said, executions can only take place in a system that is fair and just, and North Carolina’s death penalty has proven to be the opposite.
“It says in the Bible, the Torah, that there should be ‘one law for the citizen and the stranger alike,’” Solomon said. “One law for all. Not one law for the rich and one law for the poor. Not one law for those who have a true jury of their peers, and one for those whose peers are stricken from the jury. Not one law for those with excellent defense lawyers and one for those whose lawyers cannot function. Not one law for those with darker skin shades and another for lighter skin shades.”
Solomon and Klickman were joined at the press conference by Rev. Dr. Conrad Pridgen, Presiding Elder of the Western NC Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Rev. Dr. Bruce Grady, Executive Presbyter of the New Hope Presbytery.
They were among 307 leaders from every region of the state who signed the letter to Gov. Cooper as of Thursday. Signatories include not only heads of individual congregations but regional and statewide leaders in many faith traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and many major Christian denominations, as well as Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach.
The letter from faith leaders was the latest action in a statewide ‘No More Death Row’ campaign, organized by the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in partnership with civil rights leaders and organizations across the state, which launched in December with a march and rally led by people who have lost family members to homicide.
“North Carolina currently has the fifth largest death row in the nation, and there is clear evidence that those sentences are racist and inconsistent with our current values and laws,” said Noel Nickle, Executive Director of the Coalition. “Gov. Cooper must act to assure North Carolinians that unjust executions will not be carried out in our names.”
AME leader Rev. Dr. Pridgen pointed to the 12 innocent people who were exonerated after being sentenced to death in North Carolina, 11 of them men of color, and said the state’s death penalty is “polluted with racism.”
“We’re not saying don’t remove violent people from society,” Dr. Pridgen said. “All we’re saying is, commute the sentences. Because if you have a system that produces a contaminated result, and if you find out later that you’ve stopped the heartbeat of an innocent citizen, how can any of us abide that?”
Dr. Grady, the leader of New Hope Presbytery which represents dozens of North Carolina congregations, said, “When capital punishment is used as a way of bringing justice, it has a way of ricocheting with violence even among us who are still living. This kind of punishment only leads to greater violence.”
Andre Smith, a practicing Buddhist whose son was murdered in Raleigh in 2007, joined Friday’s press conference to show solidarity between faith leaders and homicide survivor family members working to end the death penalty. The letter’s signatories also include the Rev. Sharon Risher of Charlotte, who lost three family members in the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
“We all want the same thing,” Smith said, “a world with less violence, less revenge, and more healing.”
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, Executive Director of the N.C. Council of Churches, said faith leaders are a powerful voice in a state where 80 percent of adults identify with a faith tradition. The Council worked in partnership with the Coalition to coordinate the letter.
“We are only the most recent gathering of faith leaders standing in opposition to the death penalty, and we will continue to stand together until it is abolished,” Dr. Copeland said. “In the meantime, we’re asking Gov. Cooper, a person of faith himself, to use his power to commute the 137 death sentences to prison terms. We’re asking Gov. Cooper to lead North Carolina to a new vision of justice that includes possibility and hope.”
Read the full letter from faith leaders here
Watch the full press conference here
See news coverage of the faith leader letter:
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