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"Life Row" 

Families of death-row inmates gathered recently to share understanding and hope.

FAITHJoan Hunt is a mother who is familiar with pain. She knows the pain of never being able to hug her 29-year-old son, Nathan Bowie, or her brother, William Bowie, 38. Both men have been sitting on Central Prison's death row since February 1993, when they were sentenced for murder in the May 1991 shooting deaths of Calvin Lee Wilson and Nelson Roger Shuford.

Once a month, Hunt drives from her home in Hickory to Raleigh to visit the pair. But she has not touched Nathan since he and William were arrested.

"That hurts a lot, not to be able to give him a hug," Hunt says. "When we go visit him, he wraps his arms around himself and I wrap my arms around myself, and that's how we hug. It's really sad. It hurts."

Like Hunt, many family members of death-row inmates travel great distances for impersonal visits behind Plexiglas partitions in the loud, crowded Central Prison visiting room. No contact visits are allowed, and prisoners are permitted just a single phone call each year.

On Sept. 17 in Raleigh, Hunt and about 100 other family members of death-row inmates discovered they are not alone. In an unprecedented expression of unity and empathy, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP) hosted an event to provide support to the families of the state's 213 death-row inmates. The service and catered barbecue dinner that followed drew a diverse crowd from throughout the state to Christian Faith Baptist Church near Garner.

Hunt, who attended the service with her husband, daughter and granddaughter, read the Gospel during the service. She said it was special to meet people who understand what she's going through, dealing with the grief of having a loved one on death row.

"I felt really blessed to have been there," Hunt said. "That's the first time I got together with other inmates' families. That was really good. It's just like meeting up with another addict or another alcoholic. You can talk to somebody who is sharing the same feelings that you are sharing, going through some of the same things that you are going through, and that helps."

Stephen Dear, executive director of the Chapel Hill-based PFADP, said roughly 400 people attended the service and meal. The gathering, which may have been the first of its kind in the nation, was made possible through the efforts of dozens of donors and volunteers, he said. PFADP helped pay for some families' transportation to the event, and members of area congregations let the families stay in their homes.

The Rev. David Collins Forbes, pastor at Christian Faith Baptist, knew the right words to comfort families with loved ones on what he called "life row."

"This is a magnificent day," Forbes said to a packed church. "People on life row are just as precious as anybody else. In the darkest place in this state, there is hope. A hope that things will change, and reconciliation can take place. There is a light shining on life row. Because the Lord is there, there is life."

Forbes said members of his congregation, many of whom served as hosts at the event, viewed the service and meal as an opportunity "to validate our existence," and to reach out to "neglected and forgotten families."

Joining him in leading the service were the Rev. Jude Siciliano, a Catholic priest and PFADP board member; the Rev. Diane B. Corlett, an Episcopal priest and PFADP president; and Red Cloud of the Triangle Native American Society. Participants recited prayers for death-row inmates, their families, their victims and their attorneys.

"For life we pray," Siciliano said. "For governments and all legislators, that they may enact laws that uphold God's fundamental law and every person's right to life."

Said Corlett: "We acknowledge that we are part of a society that places citizens on death row, that these people are generally people of color, are disproportionately those who have killed white people, and are most often from poor families."

Hunt says she especially appreciated the diversity of the group. The crowd was split about evenly between whites and African Americans, and the service included prayers from Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and American Indian traditions.

"What I liked the most was the different religions that got together, and we prayed, sang songs, all for the same cause," she says.

For Betsy Wolfenden, the wife of death-row inmate Michael Fullwood, just being at a church full of people who understood her pain was reason enough for joy--and tears.

"I choked up numerous times during the service," says Wolfenden, a Chapel Hill lawyer who visits her husband for an hour each week. "It was just that feeling of all of us being together for a common purpose."

Wolfenden began writing to Fullwood--who is on death row for the March 1985 murder of Deidre Waters in Asheville--in 1996 while she was attending law school at the University of North Carolina. She started visiting him in 1997, and they were married in Central Prison in January, 1999.

Attending the service with her daughter, Kitt, and Margaret Fullwood, Michael's mother, Wolfenden says it was wonderful to hear others saying good things about the people on death row.

"It was just an affirmation that it is OK to love these people, and upholding the concept of redemption and forgiveness--that there is still value in these lives," she said.

After the service, families met each other for the first time, and they met strangers who had been visiting and corresponding with their loved ones for years.

"I talked to some other family members," Hunt says. "Just meeting them was really good." Like the other families she talked to, Hunt knows the constant worry when an appeal and an execution date looms.

Hunt and several of the other family members at the dinner said they would like to gather again for a similar event, a request Dear said PFADP is going to honor.

"It's very heartening to see that people feel deeply about the suffering of the families of men and women on our death row," Dear said. "We will hold an event like this at least once a year, because clearly it means so much to people."

When she prays, Hunt says she asks God to lead the way to the abolition of the death penalty so that her son and brother may live.

"I don't give up," she says. "Sometimes all I have is hope." EndBlock

  • Families of death-row inmates gathered recently to share understanding and hope.

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