Matthews, editor of The Yadkin Ripple (named for the ripples in the Yadkin River) in Yadkinville, had volunteered to be one of three media witnesses to watch the execution by injection of Joseph Earl Bates, a brain-damaged man convicted of the 1990 murder of Charles Edwin Jenkins. Matthews said Bates was the only person ever executed from this small town of 2,500 residents about 30 minutes west of Winston-Salem. The execution was "part of history" and would have "a lot of local interest," he said.
Still, Matthews, a Quaker who told a TV interviewer he was "a pacifist by nature," said he went to this assignment with mixed emotions. During his approximately half hour in a witness room that has a glass window overlooking the death chamber, Matthews said the experience of watching Bates die was surreal and sobering. Like many journalists who watch lethal injections, Matthews said the state-sanctioned killing looked "peaceful," and Bates--rendered delirious by heavy narcotics--was "very peaceful."
"It was eerie being in the room, I can say that--like a little theater," Matthews told The Independent.
In addition to a straight news story and a news sidebar, Matthews said he planned to write a personal column about the experience. "I don't support the death penalty, morally, philosophically, politically," Matthews said. "Experiencing this reinforces and solidifies my belief that the death penalty is not a deterrent, and I don't think it gave anyone any sense of closure in the room."
Although Bates asked that no one from his family watch his execution, Matthews said "a huge number" of Bates' family and friends came in the church van from Yadkinville's Deep Creek Friends Meeting to support Bates on his final day of life.
Outside the prison, death penalty opponents gathered with candles to protest the 26th person put to death since the state resumed executions in 1984.
Mary Morch, a member of Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church who had been writing to Bates for two years, said her relationship with Bates had "a rough beginning because we had so little in common, and the common gesture that came out of it was we both were stubborn enough to keep writing to each other."
Morch said she learned of Bates' love for the outdoors, and she teased him by writing him letters about big cities.
"In humor, I would write to him and say, 'All right Joseph Earl, I've been to New York City and I'm going to tell you all about the pavement and the subways.' He found that humorous that we were constantly exchanging the banter of two different lives."
Last week, Rosa Lake of Fuquay Varina, who had been writing and visiting Bates for 10 years, got a call from her cousin, N.C. Supreme Court Justice I. Beverly Lake.
"He called me ... and said he was so proud of what I was doing even though he's a proponent [of capital punishment]," Lake said.
Lake said Bates recently told her "that it would be a blessing" however things turned out.
"This way he's going to be free," she said. "He won't be behind bars anymore, and if his sentence had been commuted then he would still be behind bars for the rest of his life. This way he's free and with God."
Lake said she decided to get involved in prison ministry after she saw television newscaster David Crabtree do a report about "the ministry going on with those on death row. I was so touched by that, and being a school teacher and trying to get my kids to do what is the right thing by teaching character education, I decided it was time for me to do the right thing and to reach out beyond my privileged area."
Bob Jenkins, the brother of Bates' victim, also from Fuquay-Varina, had a different take regarding sympathy for his brother's killer. In a letter published the day Bates was executed, Jenkins wrote to The News & Observer: "I certainly feel sympathy for [Bates'] family. Both of our families have suffered terribly because of what he did. But if anyone should, for some reason, feel sympathy for him, I suggest that they read the transcript of the trials. The tears should be shed for Charlie."
(Editor's Note: For years, death penalty opponents have warned that a major bloodletting was on the horizon as the appeals of the state's more than 200 death row inmates quickly ran out. Perhaps that time has arrived. Early Friday, Eddie Hartman, a 35-year-old gay man convicted of murder, is scheduled to become the fourth person put to death in six weeks in Central Prison's death chamber.)