Sunday, June 21, 2009

Group walks to protest death penalty

Four people, who believe the state's death penalty is wrong, were not deterred by stifling temperatures on Saturday from continuing their journey through eastern North Carolina.

The group, calling themselves Sojourners for Abolition and Reconciliation (SOfAR), led by East Carolina University alumnus Scott Bass of Raleigh, walked from Bethel to Greenville along N.C. 11 and came in from the heat at The Tipsy Teapot on Evans Street.

They started out at Raleigh's Central Prison last Sunday, where all state executions occur, and plan to end their trip on the steps of the state Legislature.

They took a short break on the highway to talk about their trip and apply some moleskin to their tired feet, then crossed the Tar River into Greenville.

“My feet are a little sore, but I'm feeling good so far, “ said Debbie Biesack, of Fuquay-Varina, who is making the hike with husband David.

Executions happen 30 minutes from where the Biesacks live, so they started going to Central Prison on execution nights and got involved with death penalty opposition groups there, they said.

Neil Mohlman, 20, a senior in religious studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, also has been along for the entire trip.

“I've met some great people,” Mohlman said. “Even though I don't live here, I feel at home because of the southern hospitality. The 300-mile pilgrimage sounded like a great opportunity for me and a lot of fun.”

In the cool comfort of The Tipsy Teapot, they gathered at a table with a group of about five Greenville residents interested in hearing what they had to say about the death penalty. There were no death penalty supporters at the table.

Bass and his friends drank a few glasses of cold tea and explained their point of view.

“This walk is not only about the abolition of the death penalty,” Bass said. “It is equally for real support to the families of murder victims.”

Many rural counties do not have comprehensive services available to families of victims of violent crime and focus their attention mostly on victims who are going to assist the prosecution, Bass said.

His organization, Nazareth House, also offers counseling and support service to families of convicted murderers sitting on death row at Central Prison.

“Our faith perspective is that we have an obligation to give compassion, prayer and support to victims and perpetrators,” Bass said. “Some people get upset and question why we do that. It comes from our faith. The families of perpetrators did not commit any crimes, yet they are often the most invisible.”

Bass started Nazareth House with his wife, Roberta Mothershead, in Raleigh so people with loved ones on death row could have a place to stay while visiting an inmate, he said.

People who continue to support and visit their loved ones on death row often bear harsh consequences for years, Bass said, and are forced to hold their emotions at bay.

“They are often ostracized by their neighbors, their church congregation and even other family members,” he said.

Some family members of victims approached Bass and his wife and asked why they were not offering help and support to them, so they began to reach out to them as well. That has become standard practice, he said.

“It's painful to imagine what a family goes through in that situation, but we have a responsibility to try to imagine what it's like to get that phone call and hear that awful thing has happened,” Bass said.

He and his wife go to courtrooms during capital crime trials and sit with victims' family members, often holding their hands, he said.

It is their experience with people on both ends of the crime spectrum that solidifies their belief that the death penalty serves justice to no one, Bass and his friends said.

Bass said the small group's pilgrimage is the tip of the activist iceberg.

“There are a lot of people behind us, organizations like People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, which works with clergy to lobby for reform of death penalty legislation,” he said.

Biesack and Bass feel that right now, reform seems to be a more pragmatic approach to bringing change.

“Part of the purpose of this pilgrimage we're on is having a conversation with people and finding those points we can all agree on. Let's work on that first and see what happens,” Biesack said.

Bass said death penalty reformers should look at what he said is a clear disparity between the numbers blacks and whites convicted of capital crimes.

All of the travelers seemed eager to meet people at the grass-roots level and share thoughts about the impact of violent crime on victims' families and families with a loved one on death row.

“Our faith motivates our involvement,” Biesack said. “God doesn't want the killing of anyone in any way, whether through abortion, execution or war.”

Bass praised the small but hardy group who joined him on the journey through the area.

“I've got the right team for this walk. You have to have both a physical and spiritual strength to make this pilgrimage,” Bass said. “These are people who literally walk the talk, not just here but in their day-to-day lives, too, living a consistent ethic of life and helping others in all stages of need.”

Biesack was impressed by the way people have extended themselves to the group and engaged them in concerned conversation on the topic, even when in disagreement with their goals.

“People have been extremely gracious and helpful to us,” Biesack said. “They offer help and advice, water, food and anything else we might need.”
(Taken from

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