Faith-based organization fights the death penalty

By Tori Hamby
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

When Ronald Frye was a boy, he was given away by his mother to a complete stranger in a diner. During the rest of Frye’s childhood, the stranger and her boyfriend whipped Frye so badly that police in Newton used images of his scarred back in educational materials about how to spot child abuse—literally making him the poster boy for child mistreatment.

In November 1993, Frye, then 35 years old, was convicted of first degree murder for stabbing his landlord to death with a pair of scissors. After the conviction, Frye’s attorney, Tom Portwood, admitted to drinking 12 shots of rum during every day of the trial. Because of his attorney’s unprofessional behavior, the jury never heard about Frye’s troubled childhood. In August 2001, Frye was executed by lethal injection.

Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty in Carrboro, addresses a rally held by Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in Atlanta, Ga., on the day of the 1,000th execution by lethal injection in the United States in July 2009. Photo courtesy of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty

“If the jury members had been informed about his life prior to the murder, he would have never received a death sentence,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “The jury never knew who Ronnie Frye was.”

Dear said that this case is just one of many reasons that his organization, whose headquarters are located at 110 W. Main St. in Carrboro, works to educate congregations of all faiths about what they believe to be injustices concerning the death penalty. They are working to mobilize efforts that encourage lawmakers to abolish capital punishment. Although the organization is headquartered in Carrboro, some members live as far away as Hawaii.

“We do a wide array of grassroots organization among people of faith to address the death penalty and to help inform people about what the death penalty really involves and what people’s faith traditions really say about it,” Dear said.

According to Dear, the organization’s efforts include helping businesses, churches and local governments develop resolutions against the death penalty, holding vigils for those who have been executed and writing petitions that protest capital punishment.

“Christians bear a larger moral burden to undo the death penalty. People of faith can offer the greater community a voice of conscious and moral guidance on the issue,” Dear said.

Although many of the organization’s efforts are centered in its home state of North Carolina, Dear said they are also dedicated to abolishing the death penalty in the South as a whole. According to the group’s Web site, 80 percent of American executions occur in the South—a legacy of slavery. Dear said that a study from Ohio State University indicated a strong correlation between the frequency and locations of lynchings in the South—in which African-Americans were the primary victims—and the frequency and locations of executions after lynchings were outlawed by federal law.

“Almost all executions happen in the South, and that should cause all people in the South to wonder what we’re doing,” Dear said. “Those of us who oppose the death penalty should ask ourselves if we are allowing this to happen by silence. Those who support it should ask themselves about the clear correlation between South’s ugly history of the oppression of African-Americans and the current practice of the death penalty.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center Web site, from 1976—the year the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be constitutional—to April 2009, nine out of the top 10 states with the highest execution rates per capita were located in the South, with Oklahoma at the top with .244 executions per 10,000 people. North Carolina ranked tenth with .047 executions per 10,000 people.

The organization also honors government representatives who have striven to abolish capital punishment. On March 24, the organization held a reception for Joe Hackney, Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, in honor of his efforts in passing the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. According to Kristen Smith, director of development at People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the act addresses racial factors that cause minorities—particularly African- Americans—to have higher rates of inmates on death row.

“The act allows for a court review of cases to determine whether sentencing was based on race,” Smith said.

Dear says although the organization received a good deal of opposition in the 1990s from religious organizations and churches who supported the death penalty—usually in the form of letters and counter protests—it has been about ten years since they have witnessed any significant opposition. Dear said he perceives this as a sign that North Carolina is ready to abolish the death penalty.

“Fifteen states don’t have the death penalty, and you don’t see a large movement to bring it back” Dear said. “Eventually political leaders will feel secure enough to oppose it.”

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