by Patrick O'Neill
My wife, Mary Rider, a mother of eight children, received a 15-day jail sentence for praying during a North Carolina execution.
Mary, cofounder of the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, N.C., was sentenced to 15 days in the Wake County Jail on August 7, stemming from her August 18, 2006 arrest for trespass during a protest of the execution of Sammy Flippen at Raleigh's Central Prison.
Mary and three others attempted to symbolically enter the prison to stop the execution. At a police line, the four knelt in prayer in the driveway where witnesses enter the prison.
Mary, 48, who has six children age 14 or less, was sentenced to jail after telling Wake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan that her conscience would not allow her to pay a $100 fine and $130 court costs into a system that oppressed the poor and carried out executions in her name. A social worker, Mary told the judge she would agree to perform community service in lieu of the fine and court costs.
The judge, a firm and cold man, who frequently undercut Mary's attempts to defend herself based on Catholic Moral Teaching and the First Amendment, seemed to take personally Mary's conviction that the "judicial system" is racist and oppressive.
"Ms. Rider has stated that the judicial system is one too flawed and too imperfect," Morgan said. "I am a member of this system."
By agreeing to give Mary community service, he was in a sense validating her criticisms of the system, Morgan said.
"It's easy to open your wallet, pay that money and walk out of court," Mary's pro bono lawyer, Tim Vanderweert, told the judge. "It's much more difficult to perform community service."
In the course of the three-day jury trial, Morgan did not allow expert witness - renowned Constitutional law professor Dan Pollitt - to testify to the jury as to why Mary's actions in trying to stop Sammy's execution were legally valid under the Constitution. Doing so "would invade the providence of the jury," Morgan said.
He also limited the testimony of Duke Divinity School professor of Christian ethics Stanley Hauerwas, who tried to make the case that Mary's actions in defense of life were justified by Papal decree and Church teaching.
"I am a Christian theologian, and the subject of theology is God," Hauerwas told the court. "Catholic moral teaching is the longest tradition of Church history. Since Christians are a people who worship a person who died at the hands of the state, that being capital punishment, Christianity' s relationship to the state is at the heart of what Catholic ethics is about ... Christians are not allowed to give their ultimate loyalties to their state."
In her testimony, Mary shared a story about a time she was called to jury duty at age 18 in Eastern North Carolina. Although she was not selected to sit for the capital murder trial, Mary, who is also a mitigation specialist, said she was surprised to learn that only jurors who supported the death penalty could be seated.
"The only people in the jury are those who believe firmly in the death penalty," Mary said. "It seems like you're stacking the cards against the defendant already."
The judge instructed the jury to only consider the question of whether Mary trespassed or not. Although the jurors were out more than an hour, those initially opposed to conviction were won over. One juror told me after the verdict that since they didn't get to hear Prof. Pollitt, they were unable to acquit her.
In her sentencing, Mary read the story from Acts when Peter said he "must obey God and not men."
"I am choosing to suffer for my faith and fidelity to Jesus," Mary told the judge. "Spending time in jail for me would be an honor. Rather than a deterrent, it would be a privilege to encourage others to do the same."
The judge said he had no choice but to sentence Mary to 15 days. The jailers placed handcuffs on Mary as her children openly sobbed on the front row of the gallery.
"You're lucky to have a wife like that, and you're lucky to have a mother like that," Professor Pollitt told me and my daughter, Veronica.
Indeed we are.
Mary is expected to be in the Wake County Jail until Aug. 21. To write her:
Wake County Jail
P.O. Box 2419
Raleigh, NC 27602