Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mother of 8 goes to jail joyfully

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:
Mary Rider
Wake County Jail
P.O. Box 2419
Raleigh, NC 27602


Anonymous said...

I don't doubt that Mrs. Rider is sincerely trying to serve Jesus by doing what she's doing.

However, I can't get too excited about someone engaging in civil disobedience to oppose capital punishment, given that faithful Catholics are quite free to disagree on this point.

Babies are being slaughtered by the thousands daily, so why break the law to make a futile gesture against a practice that the Church actually recognizes as legitimate under the right circumstances?

Moreover, the story as told here is so plainly inaccurate from the beginning that it lacks credibility. Ms. Rider was sent to jail "for praying" during the execution? No, she was sent to jail for trespassing.

Lots of other folks were surely praying at the same time and they did not get arrested. That's because they didn't trespass.

And, sorry, but the Constitution doesn't give anyone a legal right to trespass in protest simply because they do it out of religious conviction. The judge was right about that.

Susanne said...

I'm not catholic but here's an official statement by the Holy See on the death penalty. At least to me it sounds as if the Holy Father did NOT agree with it.


The Holy See has consistently sought the abolition of the death penalty and his Holiness Pope John Paul II has personally and indiscriminately appealed on numerous occasions in order that such sentences should be commuted to a lesser punishment, which may offer time and incentive for the reform of the guilty, hope to the innocent and safeguard the well-being of civil society itself and of those individuals who through no choice of theirs have become deeply involved in the fate of those condemmed to death.

The Pope had most earnestly hoped and prayed that a worldwide moratorium might have been among the spiritual and moral benefits of the Great Jubilee which he proclaimed for the Year Two Thousand, so that dawn of the Third Millennium would have been remembered forever as the pivotal moment in history when the community of nations finally recognised that it now possesses the means to defend itself without recourse to punishments which are "cruel and unnecessary". This hope remains strong but it is unfulfilled, and yet there is encouragement in the growing awareness that "it is time to abolish the death penalty".

It is surely more necessary than ever that the inalienable dignity of human life be universally respected and recognised for its immeasurable value. The Holy See has engaged itself in the pursuit of the abolition of capital punishment and an integral part of the defence of human life at every stage of its development and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.

Where the death penalty is a sign of desperation, civil society is invited to assert its belief in a justice that salvages hope from the ruin of the evils which stalk our world. The universal abolition of the death penalty would be a courageous reaffirmation of the belief that humankind can be successful in dealing with criminality and of our refusal to succumb to despair before such forces, and as such it would regenerate new hope in our very humanity.

Strasbourg, 21 June 2001.