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Children plead for father's life 

Each day, Janet Syriani runs to her mailbox hoping to find a letter from her father, Elias Syriani. A missive from the father she has not touched since she was 8 years old always makes her day.

What makes this story so remarkable is that Janet's father is on Central Prison's death row for the brutal 1990 murder in Mecklenburg County of Teresa Syriani, Elias' wife and mother to his four children. Elias is scheduled to be executed for Teresa's murder at 2 a.m. Nov. 18. Barring an unlikely last-minute stay, only a commutation from Gov. Mike Easley can spare Elias from lethal injection.

At an August 2004 prison visit, their first with their father in the 14 years after the murder, Janet and her older sisters, Rose and Sarah, met a penitent man who had aged and mellowed after years on death row. After many tears of sorrow and joy from behind a glass partition, the three adult sisters forgave their father, and they have now accepted him back into their lives. A fourth sibling, John, had already been writing to his father for more than a decade, and visited him years earlier.

"Now I finally have a Daddy in my life," Janet, 24, said last week at a gathering at Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, where the four siblings came to make a public appeal to Easley to spare their father's life. "I haven't been able to call my father anything, so I'm acting like I'm 8, 9, 10 years old now when I call him my Daddy...

"I run to the mailbox every day hoping that I get something from him because it just makes my day so much better," she said.

The case, which has attracted national media attention, could make life difficult for Easley, a governor who has denied clemency for 21 men on death row, 20 of whom were executed. A former attorney general who prosecuted scores of capital cases, Easley will not be acting in the interests of the victims if he allows Syriani's execution to proceed.

The fact that four siblings, whose mother was stabbed 28 times with a screwdriver as then-10-year-old John tried to protect his mother from the attack, can reconcile with the father who did the killing, is nothing short of a miracle, says Sarah, 27, who is now married and expecting her first child.

As she prepared for her marriage, Sarah said she found herself thinking about her father and wondering why such thoughts came to mind.

"It came as a shock to me, and I actually didn't understand it," she said. "It was 15 years that I did not think of my father as even being alive, as even being in this world."

Soon, the three sisters discovered they were all thinking about their father, and they decided to join John for a visit to Central Prison, a day when Sarah says she found a miracle.

"That day I found the power of forgiveness, and I wasn't even looking for it," she said. "I felt the need to let the hurt and the anger and the hate out of my heart. It just came from a higher power, and so I believe that it came from God and from my mother."

Rose, 28, and the one who took on the role of parent to her younger siblings after they moved in with an aunt following their father's death sentence, said she and her siblings want Easley to spare them from losing the only parent they have left.

In a biography prepared for Elias' appeal, the children learned that their father, born in Jerusalem in a strict, often abusive Arab family, had suffered from "a host of mental illnesses" at the time of the murder. None of the information about Elias' mental health was introduced at his trial.

"Now that we have forgiven him, all we have is love and forgiveness in our heart," Sarah said. "Of course we're up here, and we're fighting for him, and we're fighting for his life, but we're also here to save our lives."

With the family reunited, the four siblings now allow themselves to feel good about and remember their past, "and talk about our future," Sarah said. "We're just praying, praying that they don't take it away and there's mercy. We're just begging for mercy."

Said Rose, "Each of us has a special relationship with our father, and we can't imagine this person taken away from us."

Elias Syriani is among three men scheduled to be executed in the next month. In October, the Department of Corrections also announced execution dates for Steven Van McHone, 35 (Nov. 11) and Kenneth Lee Boyd, 57 (Dec. 2).

Two men, William Dillard Powell (March 11) and Earl Richmond Jr. (May 6), have been executed this year.

  • Execution scheduled for Nov. 18

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